Employees of three Somerville cafes decide to unionize

Employees at three Somerville coffee shops began forming a union on Monday, joining a growing labor movement of café workers in the Greater Boston area.

An organizing committee of 11 employees from Diesel Café, Bloc Café and Forge Baking Company – who all share the same management team – asked for voluntary recognition of their organizing effort with the New England Joint Board UNITE HERE in a letter sent to management on Monday morning. Employees are looking for structural changes, including a framework for salary increases.

“By your side, we have worked tirelessly over the past year to keep our cafes afloat amid the seismic changes brought on by the pandemic,” employees wrote in a letter to owners Tucker Lewis and Jennifer Park and to the Chief Operating Officer Court Verhaalen. “As we look to the future, we urge you to see that organizing is the best option for our business and the greatest hope for achieving sustainability, establishing stability and engaging our entire community with care and compassion. . “

Management can recognize the union voluntarily or push the effort to a vote led by the National Labor Relations Board. Park did not say whether management would immediately recognize the union, but said the owners “are doing their best to dive in and learn the process and terminology as quickly as possible” and are “committed to making our place. work the best place possible. for our staff, ”in an email to GBH News on Monday. Asked about the increased transparency around raises and promotions, “We’re 100% behind this!” Park wrote.

In June, workers at Pavement Coffeehouse, a local chain in Greater Boston, successfully launched a flagship campaign to become Massachusetts’ first unionized café. Darwin’s, a Cambridge café with four locations, followed suit in September.

“Seeing Pavement and Darwin made it seem like it could happen here, as if it could,” said Will Lathrop, a 27-year-old team leader and floor manager at Forge. We are in this city where unionization is happening all around us, and I think this large scale increase in worker power is going to happen gradually. We thought we should, you know, add our little bullet.

The organizing committee, representing about 50 employees at the three stores, hopes a union will create more opportunities to request sick leave or time off, create a structure for raises and promotions, and increase communication and respect. between management and employees. Employees start at the minimum hourly wage of $ 13.50 per hour, but no clear structure for increases or employee growth exists, according to Lathrop, who now earns $ 15 an hour after two years of employment.

A sign indicates the entrance to the Bloc Cafe at 11 Bow St. in Somerville.

Meredith Nierman / GBH News

Workers on the organizing committee have already started collecting union authorization cards from employees, according to UNITE HERE political director and union representative Mitch Fallon, who said the union would not go from there. before without “a full confidence that an overwhelming majority of their colleagues” are in. favor of unionization.

The previous two organizing efforts at Pavement and Darwin’s, also led by UNITE HERE, revealed “major themes of structure and standards” across all stores, according to Fallon.

“Now that we’re on that third set of cafes, we’re really starting to look at what the industry standard is right now and what it should be, and currently it’s not the best,” Fallon said. “There are many opportunities to dramatically improve the lives of the people who do this highly skilled job. We want to ensure that the standards are such that this is a real area of ​​work that you can think of as a career, ensuring that people are treated well and that you can do more than just survive. in this line of work.

The median job tenure in food service nationwide is around two years, or about half of the tenure of workers in all industries. And restaurant and accommodation employment still lags behind pre-pandemic levels in Massachusetts, according to the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

“As I worked through the entire pandemic, I realized that the work we do, the bottom of the line, is what has kept our businesses going, so it’s impossible not to feel that your value as a worker is really great and you have a lot of power, ”said Lathrop. “When I saw my friends leave because they were really tired and were replaced by people who quickly started to feel the same way, I realized that if I also quit just because I was tired, the people who replaced me would feel the same. I do this for them too.

Mia Kundert, a 24-year-old woman who has worked the past nine months in the bakery and shop Forge, said the pandemic had exacerbated the harsh working conditions that employees had accepted as a new standard – until what other cafes are starting their own organizing efforts.

“The idea of ​​a union didn’t really come to mind until then, but it makes a lot of sense, especially in the service sector,” Kundert said. “We’ve undergone constant changes to keep customers happy and safe, and we don’t really have a support system. The union provides that kind of structure that we are looking for.

High turnover rates and harsh working conditions, previously accepted for restaurant jobs, don’t have to be the industry norm, Kundert said.

“It’s easy to think of this as temporary work or a job that isn’t worth unionizing,” Kundert said, “but I don’t think there is a job that isn’t worth doing. be unionized. ”

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