Philly is a (Coffee) Union Town

Philly is a union town.

The history of labor in the United States is entwined with the history of Philadelphia: the city was home to the country’s first labor union, as well as the first general strike. Now, Philly’s coffee workers are joining this labor tradition.

Local 80 is a new grassroots union movement, part of the Service Employees International Union-affiliate Workers United, consisting of workers from various food service sectors but so far focused mainly on coffee. Beginning with Korshak Bagels in 2021, the union has spread to include specialty roasters-retailers Elixr Coffee, Ultimo Coffee Roasters, ReAnimator Coffee Roasters, and other cafes around the city. While workers at Korshak ratified their contract relatively quickly, negotiations at the other unionized companies have slowed down in recent months. Union organizers want to change that.

“We started bargaining our contract in January,” says Frank Monzo, a barista at Ultimo Coffee and member of Local 80’s contract action team. “Negotiations are going well, it's exciting, but we’re not getting exactly where we want to be and it's starting to drag.”

Monzo notes that their meetings haven’t been confrontational, and the companies’ managements haven’t retaliated against workers. In fact, two of the three roasters voluntarily accepted their employees’ union petitions almost immediately. But that hasn’t sped up bargaining, which has left the workers in limbo as they await a final contract agreement.

Philadelphia has a long history of labor organizing. In fact, the very first documented union on American soil began in the city in 1794, when shoemakers came together to form The Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers in order to secure better wages and fight against the mechanization of their industry. The union’s struggle with factory owners led to several strikes and an ensuing court case, Commonwealth v. Pullis, that has been described as the first example of “the judicial suppression of trade unions in the United States.”

The first general strike in the United States also took place in Philadelphia, when in 1835 nearly 20,000 workers staged a citywide action to demand a ten-hour workday. Before that most people worked significantly longer shifts, sometimes upwards of 14-15 hours per day. The successful strike, which also secured wage increases, inspired a wave of similar actions across the country and by the end of the year the ten-hour workday was standard for most workers.

Since then labor organizers in the city have continued to rack up victories—in the 1930s, sanitation workers won their first contract after staging a strike known as the “garbage riots”, and more recently the Philadelphia branch of Starbucks Workers United has had great success in the city—but unionizing small cafes and restaurants has always been a tougher proposition.

As an article in The Conversation notes, many workers, “particularly those concentrated in relatively small workplaces in the private sector, simply can’t find a union willing to organize them. Organizing small workplaces is generally cost-prohibitive for unions and rarely results in broader bargaining power for workers in a particular sector.”

Workers United has been active within the Philadelphia service industry for years but at a much larger scale, representing workers at, among others, the food giant Aramark’s various university campus locations as well as the Philadelphia Zoo and the Pennsylvania Convention Center. That’s where Local 80 comes in, with its focus on the small independent companies that larger unions seemingly aren’t interested in.

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The union push in Philly’s coffee industry “has been brewing for a few years in the background,” Monzo tells me. “Over the past ten-ish years we’ve had such an incredible boom in [the city’s] food and beverage industry. And now we kind of have an entire class of people working in restaurants and cafes that are all being taken advantage of at a pretty incredible level.”

Informal organizing took place in 2019 but never quite got going, Monzo says. Today, however, “it feels like the structure is there, the desire from workers is there, and the companies are large enough to really sustain it. The big dream is to provide a full service industry local across the city to protect from these medium to large sized local companies that have started popping up over the past decade.”

The union drives at Elixr, ReAnimator, and Ultimo all began around the same time. When the ownership of Elixr immediately recognized its union in September 2022, it wasn’t long before the other two companies followed suit—sort of.

“I work at Ultimo,” Monzo says, “and we did have a bit of a harder time. We had some shops that were a little bit less supportive than others, so they voluntarily recognized two shops out of four that had majority support and then we had to go to election for the other two. We won those, which was exciting, but it's been a bit of a process.”

After the high of winning a union election (or having your union voluntarily recognized) comes the hard slog of negotiating with the company’s management to agree upon terms of employment from salary to benefits to working hours. This process can often take years—for every Intelligentsia where a contract was ratified in a few short months there are several examples like Colectivo where negotiations took upwards of two years.

Even if there’s no explicit union-busting going on, it is usually in the company’s interest to stretch negotiations out. That could be to erode morale and win concessions, or for the simple fact that after a year has passed disillusioned workers can file to decertify and dissolve their union.

This is now happening with Starbucks Workers United in Philadelphia and elsewhere. A powerful right-wing billionaire-backed anti-labor advocacy group is supporting attempts to decertify the union—although it’s fair to say it has… not been going well. The National Labor Relations Board has dismissed every petition so far, saying in one case that Starbucks’ union-busting has been so vociferous that it would “irrevocably taint the petition and any related election.”

For their second contract Monzo says they hope to bargain as a local but, while there is collaboration, the first contract will be individual to each company. So what are they looking for from this first contract?

“The big five things that we’re really trying to negotiate are safety, living wages, agency within the workplace for decision making, transparency, and then equity,” Monzo tells me. “Fair hiring practices, access to training, access to professional development being available to all employees. So it's going to be a pretty comprehensive first contract, but we are really going for the stuff that I'm sure baristas have been complaining about for a very long time.”

The bargaining process is complicated and can be overwhelming—especially because, as Monzo notes, “it's been a bunch of 20-year-old baristas trying to deal with an anti-union labor lawyer who's been doing it for forty years.” But although Local 80’s structure relies on a bottom-up approach that empowers the workers to do the bulk of the organizing, its affiliation with Worker’s United and the much larger SIEU offers access to negotiation expertise and funding if necessary.

Local 80’s negotiations have dragged on for over six months, although Monzo says the union team are staying positive. “They’ve been going line-by-line through the contract, [but] I've been told that once we get to financials everything starts to really accelerate. That's when we're really going to get into benefits, pay, wage structure, stuff like that. We think if we're aggressive, we can get [the contract] done by the end of August.”