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The barista uprising: Coffee shop workers ignite a union renewal

Steph Achter barista at Likewise and spearheaded the union campaign stands for a portrait at Likewise CoffeeThursday June, 9, 2022 Milwaukee. (Photos by Darren Hauck for NPR)
Steph Achter barista at Likewise and spearheaded the union campaign stands for a portrait at Likewise CoffeeThursday June, 9, 2022 Milwaukee. (Photos by Darren Hauck for NPR)

As the wave of worker organizing at Starbucks took off this year, Steph Achter looked on with joy.

"I think we're all kind of on a similar page ... of just being like, enough is enough!" says Achter, a career barista who led a union campaign at an independently owned café in Milwaukee in 2020. "It's so exciting. I am pumped."

Achter is part of a barista-led labor movement that has grown with stunning speed. Coffee shops are driving a surge in union elections, up 70% from this time last year. Starbucks alone accounts for more than half the growth, but baristas at small businesses are unionizing too, and some of them well before Starbucks.

To understand how cafés became hot spots for organizing, consider the kind of workers coffee shops attract. The people making your latte tend to be young, educated and progressive in their politics. And they're 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 emboldened workers to ask for more.

A college student finds a mission at her own workplace

Kellie Lutz didn't have organizing in mind when she sought out a job at Stone Creek Coffee in Milwaukee. She simply needed a part-time job so she could move out of her parents' house and rent a place with her boyfriend.

This was more than a year before the pandemic. Lutz was in college, surrounded by energetic, engaged young people and itching for a cause. For a while, she was intrigued by environmental work. She also dabbled in student government. Then, the Fight for $15 caught her attention, a movement of fast-food workers demanding $15 an hour.

Lutz was earning $8.25 an hour plus tips as a barista. It dawned on her: She didn't need to go far to become an activist.

"I realized that it could just happen at my workplace," she says.

Fighting on behalf of other working people

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

Still, from Lutz's perspective, something wasn't right. She was incensed that her hourly wage couldn't even buy two lattes.

And it wasn't just the pay. There were days when she couldn't find a moment to go to the bathroom while on the job. 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 got her thinking about the struggles of working people and the uneven distribution of wealth she'd heard Sen. Bernie Sanders rail against.

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

Lutz didn't know much about unions, but both of her grandfathers had been members. One had retired as secretary of an electrical workers union. The other had participated in a pilot strike. For years, they'd grumbled about unions' declining power and about workers losing their voice.

Finally, Lutz felt like she understood what they'd been talking about all those years. She was fired up and ready to act.

"We really have to do something to make people's lives better — not only my own but everyone," she recalls thinking.

Lutz got other Stone Creek baristas on board with her cause. Working with the Teamsters Local 344, she successfully petitioned for a union election. But Stone Creek's leadership fought back, arguing that unionizing was not the best way to solve grievances. In the end, enough of the staff agreed and voted down the union. Discouraged, Lutz quit her barista job and took her activism elsewhere.

But she had planted a seed.

A year later, the same union had a second chance to organize a much smaller coffee business — a single café not far from Stone Creek's headquarters. Steph Achter took the lead there.

A career barista seeks meaningful change to the industry

Many baristas work part time and view their coffee shop jobs as a step toward something else. But there are also those who want to make it a full-time pursuit, even a lifelong career.

Achter is one of them.

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

"Emotional labor is really high. 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.

The pandemic was a turning point.

In 2020, Achter was working at a Milwaukee café then known as Wonderstate. (After an ownership shuffle, the café was renamed Likewise.)

COVID made all of the existing problems worse. And on top of that, the workers felt excluded from decisions being made that greatly impacted their health and safety. It felt wrong, given they were the ones facing the risks.

Achter and a co-worker decided to take action. Drawing inspiration from other Milwaukee baristas who had started organizing, they asked for raises and more say in how the business was run, among other demands.

The café owners, facing pandemic losses, said no.

Undeterred, Achter got in touch with the Teamsters, who now had experience organizing in coffee. This time, it was a much smaller campaign, with only six employees in the bargaining unit. And this time, the union won .

Baristas are a left-leaning, educated group of workers

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

The collective stress of COVID strengthened the bonds that were already there.

Baristas tend to be tightknit, spending their days working in close quarters with one another. They're also a liberal bunch, DeVooght says. They're passionate about many of the same causes, workers rights among them.

Baristas typically have more education than others in the service industry, including fast food workers. Sometimes, far more education. A lead organizer in the Starbucks union campaign is a Rhodes Scholar.

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 jobs as something they'll do for life. In pursuing unions, they say they are fighting for themselves as well as for those who will follow, a stance that even career baristas like Achter have taken too.

Union membership comes at a cost, but these baristas say it's worth it

Along with union membership come dues. Achter's dues amount to about $30 a month.

Achter says it's worth it. The union helped secure an annual 50 cent raise for workers as well as protection from being fired without cause.

"Being in a union, I feel like for the first time I have job security," the veteran barista says. "I can make this a sustainable career."

But how much more the Teamsters or any union can deliver to coffeehouse workers is yet to be seen. An economic slowdown will soon bring an end to the record demand for workers.

All workers — baristas included — may find themselves with less clout than they'd hoped for, whether they're unionized or not.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.