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Why cafe baristas have become the face of the labor movement: NPR

Barista Steph Achter, who led the union campaign at the Milwaukee cafe now known as Like, has worked in different cafes for 17 years and wants others to make a career out of it too.

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Barista Steph Achter, who led the union campaign at the Milwaukee cafe now known as Like, has worked in different cafes for 17 years and wants others to make a career out of it too.

Darren Hauck for NPR

As the wave of worker organizing at Starbucks took off this year, Steph Achter watched with glee.

“I think we’re all on a similar page…to just be like, enough is enough!” says Achter, a career barista who led a union campaign at an independent cafe in Milwaukee in 2020. “It’s so exciting. I’m pumped.”

Achter is part of a labor movement led by baristas that has grown with astonishing speed. Cafes are driving a wave of union elections, up 70% from the same time last year. Starbucks alone accounts for more than half of the growth, but small business baristas are also unionizing, and some of them long before Starbucks.

To understand how cafes have become organizational hotspots, consider the type of workers that cafes attract. The people making your latte tend to be young, educated, and progressive in their politics. And they are part of a generation of workers who have faced massive upheaval in their young lives – economic disruption, social unrest, a global pandemic and a labor market that has encouraged workers to demand more.

A student finds an assignment at her own workplace

Kellie Lutz didn’t have the organization in mind when she sought a job at Stone Creek Coffee in Milwaukee. She just needed a part-time job so she could leave her parents’ house and rent a place with her boyfriend.

Kellie Lutz, who launched a labor campaign at Stone Creek Coffee in 2019, stands outside her home in Milwaukee. Lutz is now a certified practical nurse and steward with the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals. She recently helped negotiate a collective agreement.

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It was more than a year before the pandemic. Lutz was in college, surrounded by energetic, committed young people eager to have a cause. For a time, she was intrigued by environmental work. She also dabbled in student government. Then, the Fight for $15 caught his attention, a movement of fast food workers demanding $15 an hour.

Lutz earned $8.25 an hour plus tips as a barista. She realized that she didn’t have to go far to become an activist.

“I realized this could happen in my workplace,” she says.

Fighting on behalf of other workers

As of 2019, Stone Creek Coffee had 12 locations in and around Milwaukee and one in Chicago. The specialty coffee chain was founded in the 1990s by a former barista turned entrepreneur who sought to do good for his employees and his community.

Yet, from Lutz’s perspective, something was wrong. She was furious that her hourly wage couldn’t even buy two lattes.

And it wasn’t just the salary. There were days when she couldn’t find time to go to the bathroom during her work. She was horrified to learn that under Wisconsin labor law she was an “at-will” employee, meaning she could be fired for any reason.

It made her reflect on the struggles of working people and the unequal distribution of wealth that she had heard Senator Bernie Sanders complain about.

One day she came across a Facebook post from a local branch of the Teamsters union, inviting anyone interested in unionizing to get in touch.

Lutz didn’t know much about unions, but both of his grandfathers had been members. One had retired as secretary of an electricians’ union. The other had participated in a pilots’ strike. For years they have complained about the decline of union power and the loss of workers’ voices.

Finally, Lutz seemed to understand what they had been talking about all these years. She was excited and ready to act.

“We really need to do something to make people’s lives better – not just mine but everyone else’s,” she recalled thinking.

Kellie Lutz’s labor campaign at Stone Creek Coffee has failed, but she continues her labor activism in her new job in healthcare. “I’m going to be a union girl forever,” she says.

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Lutz enlisted other Stone Creek baristas in his cause. Working with Teamsters Local 344, she successfully called for a union election. But Stone Creek management fought back, arguing that unionization was not the best way to resolve grievances. In the end, enough staff accepted and rejected the union. Disheartened, Lutz quit her job as a barista and took her activism elsewhere.

But she had planted a seed.

A year later, the same union got a second chance to organize a much smaller coffee business – a single coffee shop not far from the Stone Creek headquarters. Steph Achter took the lead there.

Career Barista Seeks Meaningful Change in the Industry

Many baristas work part-time and see their job at a coffee shop as a stepping stone to something else. But there are also those who want to make it a full-time business, or even a lifelong career.

Acher is one of them.

A 17-year veteran of different cafes from Green Bay to Milwaukee, Achter found that the challenges are the same everywhere.

“The emotional labor is very intense. The schedules are really inconsistent. It’s hard to take time off, to plan your life outside of work,” says Achter, who has come to believe that unions are the key to change.

Barista Steph Achter, now a shop steward at Like in Milwaukee, pays $30 a month in union dues. “I feel like for the first time I have job security,” says Achter.

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The pandemic was a turning point.

As of 2020, Achter was working at a Milwaukee cafe then known as Wonderstate. (After a change in ownership, the cafe was renamed Similar.)

COVID has compounded all existing problems. And on top of that, workers felt left out of decisions made that had a big impact on their health and safety. It was frowned upon, since they were the ones running the risk.

Achter and a colleague decided to act. Taking inspiration from other baristas in Milwaukee who had begun to organize, they asked for raises and more say in running the business, among other demands.

Cafe owners, faced with pandemic losses, said no.

Undeterred, Achter got in touch with the Teamsters, who now had experience running the cafe. This time it was a much smaller campaign, with just six employees in the bargaining unit. And this time the syndicate won.

Destiny DeVooght, who helped organize the same, is now trying to organize workers at another coffeehouse in Milwaukee. “We’re historically a union town,” DeVooght says. “I want to be part of bringing this back.”

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Baristas are a group of educated, left-wing workers

“I think the pandemic, while horrific, has created the perfect conditions to foster worker solidarity,” says Destiny DeVooght, one of three workers who voted for the union.

The collective stress of COVID has strengthened the bonds that already existed.

Baristas tend to be tight-knit, spending their days working closely with each other. They are also a liberal group, says DeVooght. They are passionate about many of the same causes, including workers’ rights.

Baristas generally have more education than others in the service industry, including fast food workers. Sometimes a lot more education. One of the main organizers of the Starbucks labor campaign is a Rhodes Scholar.

Like many specialty coffee baristas, Destiny DeVooght takes pride in her work. “It allows you to be so creative and engage with the most interesting people,” DeVooght says.

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And they see their activism as a way to leave their mark. Unlike the union workforce of a generation past, most baristas don’t see their job as something they’ll do for a lifetime. Researching unions, they say they are fighting for themselves as well as those who will follow, a stance that even career baristas like Achter have also taken.

Joining a union comes at a cost, but these baristas say it’s worth it

With union membership come dues. Achter dues are about $30 per month.

Achter says it’s worth it. The union helped secure a 50 cent annual raise for workers as well as protection against dismissal without cause.

“Being in a union, I feel like I have job security for the first time,” says the veteran barista. “I can make a lasting career out of it.”

But what more the Teamsters or any union can do for coffeehouse workers remains to be seen. An economic downturn will soon end the record demand for workers.

All workers — including baristas — can end up with less influence than they hoped, whether they’re unionized or not.

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