“We had formal recognition, but not genuine engagement”: On the difficulties of bargaining

Last fall, baristas at a small coffee chain in Michigan organized with the IWW. After quickly winning voluntary recognition from the employer, they entered negotiations. Before anything was achieved at the bargaining table, in April, the owners announced that most of the locations would be closing. Marianne Garneau spoke to Alec, one of the worker-organizers from the campaign. The company is not named, due to a non-disparagement clause.

Image: Bike path near Washtucna, WA, 2009 | Robert Ashworth, Flickr

How did the campaign start?

Last year around this time, I was working at this coffee company. Someone had left, alleging racial discrimination. I didn’t know the person personally; I heard about this on a podcast.

A few of the other baristas and I ended up connecting with her and getting her side of the story. She quit because she found out she was making less than other people. She was given this title without any pay bump. She felt strung along.

She had the help of some community organizers. There was lots of public outcry, and PR management by the company, who said they “could not possibly be racist” and that this was an unfair attack on their business.

At this point, seven or eight baristas started meeting regularly. The community organizers helping the worker who had quit put us in touch with the Ypsilanti branch of the IWW.

Who did the campaign involve?

There were 17 baristas total. We acquired about one new member every week.

The company had four physical workplaces — cafés. One had a roastery in it: there were production staff doing coffee roasting, bagging, delivery. One included a restaurant. We were not close with the dishwashers, cooks, servers. The campaign was across all the cafés but only among the baristas, who were mostly white, mid-20s to mid-30s, mostly educated. It felt like a bigger challenge to connect with the people in those other roles.

Because the company was not large, the baristas were the majority of the employees. One day, we realized the roster of people [baristas] who wanted to form a union was the majority of the workers.

When and why did you go public?

We were starting to worry about how large the group was getting, and how we couldn’t keep it under wraps much longer. We decided to come out and petition our employer for recognition.

We did a march on the owners and delivered a hand-written coming-out letter. We wrote a version for [the rest of the] staff, and a version for owners. We wanted it to be non-threatening, and so we said we looked forward to collaborating. We didn’t mention the word “union.” We said we were affiliated with the IWW, so they should be in contact with them. [Ed note: workers were helped by a few members of the IWW Ypsilanti branch.]

This was in October of 2018.

Did you have formal recognition?

Yes. When we marched on the boss with our coming out letter, we said, “we’d like your response within 24 hours. We’re hoping you’ll just say yes.” The next day I got a call from the IWW saying “they’ve agreed.”

This was our first time doing this, so we didn’t know how rare that is. But we had formal recognition, and not genuine engagement.

Owners hired a union-busting attorney. We were told they were now the official go-to person if we wanted to have any negotiation. We started meeting with management in November. The attorney and one of the owners would meet with us in these negotiating sessions. The sessions were very civil, and even promising at times, but we didn’t even have a tentative agreement by the time things fell apart [the following April].

We thought about what would make the workplace better, how to have dignity as baristas, and we would write that into the contract language, and bring that to the table, and the only thing we were met with was cookie-cutter stuff, which didn’t even correspond with what the owners presented their beliefs about the company to be. “Management will have sole discretion…” We were trying to provide solutions specific to our workplace. And we were getting back this generic, management-rights preserving language, with no gains for workers at all.

Why don’t you think the company was willing to concede anything in bargaining?

The initial response was that the business was in some legal precarity. They had just undergone this campaign to hold them accountable for their actions [when the other worker left], and that felt threatening. That was the first time the company had been publicly scrutinized in that way, and the expense and embarrassment of that…

But that became an easy crutch of “we don’t want to deal with the employees.”

They brought in the lawyer as a kind of “mediating” force. But once we became proceduralized, they felt safe, in that bureaucratic protection. There was no genuine collaboration to resolve specific problems in the workplace.

For example, when we began negotiations, our first uphill fight – which surprised me – was that we wanted a clause in our contract that you can only be disciplined or fired or even denied raises for concrete reasons that have to be written down. We wanted to document an equal system. I still think that’s eminently reasonable. Unfortunately, management and owners did not agree. They balked at the “just cause” clause.

I think they found it threatening because we were the ones proposing it.

We kept saying, “This is for our mutual benefit.” Some of our proposals were just for our benefit as workers. But some were for both. We were trying to help the bottom line.

What do you think it takes to get concessions from management?

I can tell you what the answer is not. It’s not market rationality. Some of us naïvely thought if we can find a way to make this a fair or growth-oriented proposal, it will work. There was one person who had training responsibilities, and it was a big time-crunch for that person, because there was a lot of turnover. It took months for people to be fully trained, months for them to be able to make certain menu items. We proposed that, at management’s discretion, people could, on a case-by-case basis, do some of the training modules, and if they did that work, they would receive an extra dollar an hour during that training. It was still based on permission from management, but they could decide to [train people in this way], rather than it taking months for someone to know how to make a cappuccino. But they refused. So then I thought, “Wow, this is about something other than business itself.” There’s an emotional aspect to it. There was no way they could take advice from us and implement it.

So you were trying to be “reasonable.”

The “psychographic” profile of the baristas was: conflict-avoidant, eager to please, good communication skills. We used a lot of listening strategies.

The message we got from IWW was, “You’re too nice. You guys are getting steamrolled; you need to stand up for yourselves.”

But the culture was, we didn’t feel comfortable standing up for ourselves.

Now that it’s over, I have to admit it’s a kind of relief. I was getting very worn down. We were being strung along, and I was getting burnt out. There were definitely times I was doing estimates, “How much longer do I have to stay? In this workplace, in this project?”

I didn’t expect the business would close.

Tell me about the business closing.

We were told on a Monday that the stores would be closing. The flagship store where I worked would be closing on Friday. They were “pulling out of the café business.” They did not want to employ baristas anymore.

Our understanding was that this was an illegal thing for them to do. We sprang into action. On Tuesday [the following day] — a regularly scheduled negotiating session, we were told “bring your proposals for cessation.” I said there’s not enough time for us to come up with a proposal. They proposed a one-week severance.

Everything fell apart that week. It was a fuck you to the workers, but it was also ownership saying, “we give up.” There’s been this weird, long drama through the whole summer, of stores closing. The management and owners were almost entirely absent. Customers were furious. People were tipping us extremely well. Workers were singing out of nervous, crazy anxiety, laughing inappropriately. Showing signs of psychological distress. Customers were coming behind the counter to give us hugs; people were crying. That Tuesday was the most bizarre day I’ve ever had. We started talking to our regular customers about how their favorite place was not going to be there next week. Someone in production overheard me talking about that and called the general manager, who came in. She told me not to tell customers. So then I had a conniption. I did something very uncharacteristic and said, “You get on bar and make these drinks; I’m taking a break.” And I went outside and called the news media.

We staged protests at a few stores in the afternoon. Then at that negotiation, it was crazy. We had no idea who was even in that room — grad students, people from other unions, well-known union organizers. I was on the negotiating team. We went back and forth for a couple of hours. It was hot in the room and I was so fried. One of our IWW reps asked us what our bottom line minimum was that we would accept. And one of our loudest members said $3,500. And I didn’t think that was achievable, and I said, “Then we’d better start at five [thousand].”

What happened next was not something that I expected. The owner and attorney came back into the room, and this member of the IWW, guns blazing, said, “Give everyone five thousand dollars or we’ll boycott your business.” And there happened to be another prominent union leader who organizes a coalition of unions, and they said, “Yup, we organize the teachers and nurses.” And this picture was painted for [owners]. The attorney said, “I see what you’re doing here, you’re threatening a secondary boycott,” and the negotiation was over.

The second day, a member said, “We have to stick to our guns here,” and sent a message reminding management of our demand, and the attorney said, “Okay, I’m drawing up the paperwork.”

The amount [of the severance] was enough for someone to transition from this hourly job to another hourly job. I feel so ambivalent.

They closed my store immediately on that Friday. And the next store, on schedule, as promised in our agreement. The third store they didn’t close but sold. There is discussion right now in our union about whether action should be taken.

The last store is scheduled to close on August 31st. [Ed note: This interview took place on August 16; the store did not close on the 31st.]

And they never promised to close the production side?

Correct. Just the cafés.

What are your thoughts about how this ended?

One question that was never answered was, why? Why do we have to abide their insane schedule? Clearly it was inconsiderate to lay people off with four days’ notice. We were expected to give 2 weeks’ notice to quit!

And $5,000 was an impressive amount to workers used to making $10 an hour. But it was a way to completely take advantage of our financial vulnerability. There’s a very sweeping anti-disparagement clause that says you can never say anything bad about the company or the brand again. Which is why I’m not using their name. We were also asked to sign on such an urgent timeline, and people who need that money and are scared about their future – it was impossible to have a fair or rational conversation.

There was some small part of it that was like, “That’s cool, we finally made the boss do something.” But one of the ways this was not a success, was management ended up completely preventing us from having a discussion amongst ourselves, as workers. The group pressure was turned inward.

The severance got paid out in two installments. And in between the first and second, the attorney said, “You have to take this Facebook live video down from your feed. The agreement says you will not publish defamatory information about that brand.” And I said, “This is old. There’s a timestamp on this. We should not acquiesce.” And the attorney threatened to withhold the second payment. And another member of the organizing committee caved to that pressure. They still dominated us economically even after the business was closed.