Younger workers driving push to create unions in service industry 

Baristas on strike at Great Lakes Coffee is just one example of service workers at bars, restaurants and more fighting to unionize. 

 

Baristas at Great Lakes Coffee, one of the city’s most popular coffee shops, are on strike. But it’s hardly the only example of service workers at bars, restaurants and more fighting to unionize.

Unions are having a bit of a push right now nationwide. Kellogg, Starbucks and Amazon are just a few of the companies nationwide where workers are trying to create unions.

Lex Blom, a barista and cook at Great Lakes Coffee for nearly five years, says the Great Lakes Coffee workers are seeking recognition of their union and a fair first contract.

Blom says workers at the Midtown coffee shop have approached management with concerns regarding wages, equipment and safety over the years, but the current push to unionize grew after a COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year.

Nine out of the 15 employees contracted COVID-19, Blom says, which led to the indefinite closure of the cafe. They didn’t know if they were getting fired or laid off; they were just told the café wasn’t open any more.

“As soon as we got that email from management [about the closure], we decided to start talking together about what our options were,” Blom says. “And at that point in time, we decided that we needed to establish communication with the owners and we’re hoping that going through the unionization process that would be able to help us establish that communication.”

In a statement released last week, owners Greg and Lisa Miracle said they are at “a crossroad” with the employees.

“We believe their dissatisfaction is based largely upon misinformation and miscommunication between management and frontline staff,” they said in the statement. “We take responsibility for that and we will try very hard to repair these relationships. We want to reach a resolution that is not only acceptable, but amicable, to all.”

Specifics on what steps are being taken weren’t given. “Great Lakes Coffee is still a small business which like so many other businesses has just come through two years of extraordinarily difficult times,” the statement says. “We are not clear of these times yet, so while we fully intend to do everything we can to satisfy our employees, we cannot take unrealistic steps that will in any way jeopardize the business and the sustainability of the jobs it supports.”

The Great Lakes Coffee workers have been watching the Starbucks union efforts, Blom says. “We believe that baristas all over the United States in the coffee industry and especially here in Metro Detroit can absolutely fight for better knowing that the coffee industry is booming right now,” Blom says.

 

Nia Winston, general vice president of Unite Here and president of Local 24, says approval of labor unions is at the highest point since 1965. “This is a unique time in labor,” Winston says.

Nia Winston, general vice president of Unite Here and president of Local 24, says she’s excited to see more workers across the country raising their concerns and seeking better pay and working conditions.

“[Workers] demand things from their employer that normal employees would demand on a daily basis,” Winston says. “And when that goes on deaf ears, what’s next for them to do but ask for a labor union and ask for someone to speak on their behalf and empower the workers to have a collective bargaining agreement, so they won’t have to beg for those things? They have a right to negotiate and the employer has to hear [them].”

Pointing to a recent Gallup poll that says approval of labor unions is at the highest point since 1965, Winston says it’s a unique time in labor.

“I think through the pandemic, workers were sitting at home and really thinking about how their employers treated them,” Winston says. “And so I think this is a unique time in labor, but also a time where we can and remain to stay united and make sure we’re fighting for what’s right for everyday workers.”

Russ McNamara, a reporter and All Things Considered host at WDET, has been covering the Great Lakes Coffee strike. He says younger people are realizing unions can be a positive force and the workers are exercising their rights.

“Young people are going to continue to be the drive of politics moving forward. And as long as they’re into it, then that’s how long it will last,” McNamara says.

Blom agrees.

“This is my first experience into looking into unionization, really being told what a union is,” Blom says. “This isn’t really education that we’re offered or given throughout our lives until it’s time that we have to be looking for the information. Knowing that we have Unite Here Local 24 supporting us and telling us, no, you’re not imagining things, you do deserve better, you can have better has been hugely instrumental.

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Author

  • Amanda LeClaire is Host of CultureShift and is a founding producer of both of WDET's locally-produced daily shows. She's been involved in radio and the arts in Detroit for over a decade.