Buffalo SPoT Coffee Workers Break New Ground With Union Vote
by Sean Collins
Yesterday, over 70 workers at four SPoT Coffee stores across Buffalo, New York voted 43 to 6 to join the Rochester Regional Joint Board/Workers United, SEIU. The landslide victory comes on the heels of a May vote to unionize at SPoT’s Rochester location; as a result of the two votes, a quarter of SPoT Coffee’s locations across New York are now organized.
The organizing win is part of a bigger fight for dignity at work in New York’s service sector, starting with 200 fast food workers who went on a one-day strike in New York City in 2012. In 2012, the organizing endeavor was met with a mixture of skepticism and awe: after all, the food service industry is notoriously challenging to organize. As of 2018, only 1.7% of restaurant workers are organized, making the food service sector one of the least organized in the country.
There are a number of reasons for the challenges in food service organizing. The workforce is fluid. Last minute scheduling notice and short-staffing, combined with a lack of full-time hours and lack of benefits, often results in high turnover. In addition, the workforce is atomized as workers in different restaurants are isolated from each other. The few restaurant workers that are organized are often employed within the hospitality or gaming industry (like organized casino workers represented by UNITE-HERE’s Culinary 226 in Las Vegas, Nevada).
But following on the heels of Occupy Wall Street, those 200 fast food workers—and the Fight for $15 movement—lit a spark.
Workers across the country put pressure on their state legislatures, leading many states—including New York—to pass legislation that will progressively raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Desperate to neutralize any political threats from the left and with one-day strikes of fast food workers growing in size and scope, in 2015 Governor Andrew Cuomo empaneled a wage board to investigate and make recommendations on the minimum wage for the fast food industry. The next year, the enacted state budget included an increase in the general minimum wage. But as is often the case with policy originating with Cuomo’s administration, there were industry-friendly carve-outs.
After roughly six months on the job, Cory Johnson, a shift manager at SPoT Coffee in downtown Rochester, started talking with his coworkers about unionizing. It quickly became clear there was a lot of interest among the predominantly young workforce.
The concerns raised ran the gamut of issues facing the more than 13 million workers in the service industry. SPoT relies on a primarily part-time workforce; many employees are classified as tipped workers and are forced to rely on second jobs to make ends meet. Of the roughly 15 workers at his location, Johnson is one of two full-time employees in his bargaining unit.
“It’s not a secret that service industry workers don’t get paid very well,” said Johnson. “There’s no promise of a pay increase the longer you’ve been there, so it’s very possible you’ve worked there two, three years and are still making the same amount of money you were when you started.”
As a result of the Cuomo administration’s politically motivated industry-friendly carve-outs, New York has a confusing range of different minimum wages determined by the region you work in, what industry you work in, and even how many employees are on the payroll. As a result, there are distinct minimum wages for fast food workers and farm workers, and for businesses of different sizes. In fact, there is even variation regarding the general minimum wage, which will rise to $15 an hour across all categories: except in Upstate New York. In Upstate, the Labor Commissioner and Director of the Division of Budget—appointed by Cuomo—will order a percentage increase based on their own economic analysis.
Another distinct category is tipped workers, like Johnson and his SPoT coworkers, who are paid a subminimum wage. In Upstate New York, this can be as low as $7.50: and it often is, based on the assumption that tips will supplement the hourly wage. In the case of SPoT Coffee, starting pay is $9.35 plus tips, resulting in a base wage well below a living wage. In Monroe County—where the Rochester store is located—$15.29 is considered a living wage for a single adult. And New York’s tipped worker classification is not unique – 42 other states allow employers to pay a lower wage to tipped workers.
“The law allows our employer to pay us less than the minimum wage, which is unfair because our tips aren’t exactly a hundred dollars a night,” Johnson—who makes $10.50 an hour—pointed out. Until recently, SPoT employees were not classified as tipped workers and fell under the general minimum wage. Tips are distributed based on number of hours worked the previous day. At most, Johnson walks away with an additional $120 a week in tips: an amount that doesn’t make up for the difference between the tipped minimum wage and the general minimum wage.
Once SPoT workers in Rochester connected with Workers United, which also represents baristas at Gimme! Coffee stores in Ithaca, New York, they formed an organizing committee and began signing up their coworkers on union authorization cards. According to Johnson, a supermajority signed cards in less than a week. The company was caught completely off guard. The petition was filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on May 7 and the committee delivered a letter to their manager the same day. As Johnson put it, “I was trying to prepare myself for the opposition but it wasn’t coming.” By the end of May, they voted overwhelmingly to unionize.
SPoT workers in Buffalo quickly realized that the company was intent on preventing a domino effect. According to organizing committee member Byrne Kolega, who works at the Williamsville store, two fellow SPoT workers—Phil Kneitinger at the Hertel Ave store and Phoenix Cerny at Delaware Ave—called a meeting after the Rochester victory to get more information from members of the Rochester organizing committee and Workers United staff.
Like Johnson and his coworkers, Buffalo SPoT workers were frustrated by new hires brought on as tipped workers and a lack of cost of living increases for longer-term employees. When the general minimum wage rises at the end of the year, Kolega anticipates she will fall below that threshold. Proximity to SPoT’s corporate headquarters has also meant more scrutinizing, capricious executives. For instance, one former employee was fired for not enthusiastically greeting the CEO, Anton Ayoub.
But Kolega also stressed that SPoT was also moving away from its roots as a more community-minded cafe and younger workers were growing increasingly frustrated. “There’s less and less transparency from corporate. A lot of us are unhappy with changes gearing us more towards mass production and a franchise model, which isn’t the cafe we all joined.”
Still, Kolega did not think the effort was going anywhere until the company suddenly fired three attendees of that meeting—Kneitinger and Cerny along with the Williamsville store manager, Lukas Weinstein. But while it certainly had the intended effect of frightening some workers, Kolega said it overwhelmingly galvanized her coworkers, who were furious that management would flagrantly break federal labor law.
“Once those three were dismissed, people realized ‘okay, maybe we do need a union,’ because the company is willing to act like this. I think that sparked the Buffalo movement in a serious way,” Kolega explained. “We were interested in it, but I don’t know how many people would have been quite as committed to giving as much time and energy as so many people have if those three hadn’t been fired.”
Particularly at her location, Kolega believes corporate expected the workers to abandon the organizing effort and find other work when they fired the store manager, Lukas Weinstein. Instead, many were very close with him and trusted him enough that he was invited to attend that initial meeting with Workers United staff. When pressed by corporate to name the other attendees, he refused. “[Firing] him at our store really solidified support there. We wanted to stand up for him too because he lost his job protecting us.”
The community immediately rallied to the defense of the workers. Support came from all corners, including the local labor movement and elected officials. State Senator Tim Kennedy even preemptively urged customers to boycott the company. The organizing committee has since called for such a boycott over social media. It remains to be seen if the boycott will be suspended as a result of the union election.
Johnson says contract negotiations are underway in Rochester, though strictly on non-economic issues. However, the atmosphere at the cafe has changed, particularly the workers’ relationships with customers. “They come in congratulating us and asking how they can support us, how bargaining is going, what’s happening in Buffalo. People in town now know us as the union coffee shop.”
In Buffalo, with the help of Workers United, Cerny and Kneitinger filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. Workers United is also supporting Weinstein separately in his case before the board. With the cases still pending, Kolega stressed that a win at the ballot box was not enough. “Reinstatement is a huge part of our movement. It’s a weird hill that they [corporate] seem intent to die on because it’s pretty clear that the firings were unlawful. We are hoping [Kneitinger, Cerny, and Weinstein] are reinstated with back pay and we want a public admission of wrongdoing by the company.”
There is talk about organizing other SPoT Coffee stores. This may be slightly complicated by the company’s shift to expansion through franchising or corporate-controlled franchise arrangements. One of their demands, along with reinstatement and back pay for those fired in retaliation for organizing is a neutrality agreement at all other locations.
But Kolega says they are also thinking beyond SPoT. “A lot of us envision a union for service workers in general. People can’t even picture organizing [the industry] but it’s something that needs to start happening. That was one of my big inspirations for organizing. Hopefully [our victory will] make other cafe employees stand up for themselves too.”
Kolega isn’t alone; Johnson agreed that the SPoT victory should be the start of a wider movement for service sector unionization in Upstate New York. “We want to take this beyond SPoT. We want to take it to cafes across the region.”
Sean Collins is Lead Organizer for SEIU 200United and a member of UAW 1981. The views expressed are his own.