Sunergos Union Workers Fight to Make Their Voices Heard

Sunergos Union Workers Fight to Make Their Voices Heard

The Louisville-based coffee chain won its union vote in January 2023—and is still waiting on leadership to ratify a contract.

Today, I’m chatting with two members of the Sunergos Union, a group that represents all the hourly workers at Sunergos Coffee in Louisville, Kentucky. The Sunergos workers won their union vote in January 2023, and now they’re waiting on leadership to bargain in good faith and work with the union to negotiate a contract. But unfortunately, that process—particularly getting leadership to the bargaining table—has been trying at best.

In this episode, we look closely at the process of unionizing after a union vote has gone through. Yes, winning a union vote is a huge victory—but there’s so much more that has to happen afterwards, and which rarely gets reported on. For example, the workers at Sunergos went on a one-day strike on July 17 to protest the lack of movement and action on the part of leadership. From my research on the union, it appears that leadership has yet to make any public statement at all.

Even though they won their union vote, Sunergos workers are still fighting to have their voices heard. Here are Clove and Razija, on behalf of the Sunergos Union:

Ashley: I am so excited to have two of the representatives of the Sunergos Union here with me today. And I was wondering if you could start by introducing yourselves. I'll have Clove go first.

Clove: Hi, my name's Clove Harrington. I use they/them pronouns, and I've worked at Sunergos for almost two years.

Razija: I'm Razija Mehinovic. I use they/them pronouns, and I've worked at Sunergos for about eight months now.

Ashley: So, I’d like to give a timeline of how the union has progressed, how we've gotten from the point that we're currently at to where it started. So Clove, I was wondering if you could start by telling us where this union effort really began for you.

Clove: Yeah. So we started it last June—June 1, 2022. There was a company-wide meeting to talk about tip pooling. We don't currently do that, and the meeting was to gather opinions about if this is something we want to start doing. And just having conversations with my co-workers, we kind of felt that we don't really care if we're pooling our tips or not.

We just want to be making more money and don't really like the idea of tips in general and want a higher base wage. When we brought that up at the meeting, a couple of my co-workers were written up for their tone in bringing it up. That's the point when we were like, “Okay, we needed a union to protect us and move forward with this.”

There were whispers of it before a little bit, but that was the point that was like, “Okay, we gotta start this. We gotta get on this.”

Ashley: And what point are you folks at right now?

Clove: We are still in negotiations. So we won our union back in January and we are not even halfway there to finishing up our negotiation process.

Ashley: I want to talk about the negotiation process, because I feel like that's a part of the union story that often gets missed—because when you look at news coverage of unions, it's like, “Oh, so and so won their union,” but that's half the battle. There's still a lot to happen.

But I want to go back to that idea of wages. As I was reading some information about Sunergos and barista wages, it seems like people are getting paid between $8.25 to $10.25 an hour. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how much on average people are making, and how that looks realistically in a place like Louisville, where according to the MIT Living Wage calculator (as of this recording), the living wage for one person is $16.17 an hour.

Razija, maybe you can jump in and talk about that.

Razija: Yeah, for sure. I think this question gets really complicated just because we're talking about a tip system and there are five different stores, each one having a different amount of business. So at my store, we can range anywhere from $17 to $22 on a good day, another store might only be $15.

Sometimes the tip machine doesn't work, so you're only getting $10.25. And it just points to the major issue that I think everyone has noticed, which is we're doing all of this work, not getting paid very much money.

Clove: We also have a pay cap at Sunergos. And so that's why you've seen a quote from a worker saying like, “I've worked here four years, I only make $12.25 an hour. And that's ‘cause they've hit the pay cap. So SGAs has always done raises like twice a year. But then once you hit the pay cap, you can't go any higher than that.

Ashley: Has that pay cap changed at all over time to meet living-wage standards or inflation standards?

Clove: Not that I know of. As far as I know, the base wage has been the same for a while.

Ashley: What were some other issues that were coming up for you folks as you started talking about, “maybe we want a union, maybe we need to think about some collective action”? What were some of the themes that you started seeing? And I'll have Clove jump in first there.

Clove: I feel like there's a lot of other ones, but I think a big thing with us winning our union is just a general sense of respect from upper management and the owners because it really—that has not been a pattern. Just like respect and value of work.

Because saying that you value your workers means nothing if you're not doing anything to back that up materially. So if I'm making $8.25 an hour or baristas are starting at $8.25 an hour, that doesn't show that you respect or value the work that we're putting in.

Ashley: You talked about this wage cap—for you folks, what does it feel like to know this is the most that I can make at this company?

What does it say to you about the way that management or leadership views the value of your work? Razija, I’ll have you jump in there.

Razija: I mean, put simply, it indicates that they don't really value my work or that they're relying a lot on the kindness of others to ensure that I have a living wage, which is just a really unfair standard to set, especially when everyone that I know that works at Sunergos works so much, works so well, is really passionate about their job, is consistently working to be a better barista.

I mean, we've entered the world of like quality coffee, and so to know that, 1) Our base wage is $8.25 when we have a lot of experience—that's insulting, but then to know that they're expecting so much work for me and to consistently provide a good experience for everyone, but that they will only pay me up to $12, knowing that that will not pay my rent …

It's just insulting and disrespectful, and sends a clear message to me and everyone else that they just don't care about the work that we're doing and that ultimately they feel like we are replaceable—and they can just pay somebody else $12.25 if I don't want that.

Ashley: Clove, I want to talk about people who have worked at Sunergos for a couple of years, people who have really put time and effort into the company, because it seems like this idea that we're maybe gonna pay people only a certain amount of money relies on the idea of transience, that people will come and go. And I'm wondering if that's an attitude that you've seen at Sunergos.

Clove: Oh, absolutely. I think having a pay cap in general really exposes that they are of the idea that being a barista is just a part-time, seasonal job, so we don't deserve a living wage necessarily. They've told us before that they see being a barista as just a job for a season, and that we're selling ourselves short if we don't move up to a management position or go start our own coffee shop or do something other than “just” being a barista.

And I say “just” in quotes because we all know it's actually a very difficult job, and we put a lot of work and care and attention into it. And a lot of skill also.

Ashley: Yeah, that's such an interesting thing to tell your staff, especially because the shop doesn't exist without you.

Clove: Right. Exactly.

Ashley: So you folks won your union vote in January. And again, I wanted to go back to that idea of negotiation because that's, for me, the part that I don't hear people talk about as much—if only because it feels like the victory has already been accomplished, but really the victory is getting a contract.

So maybe you can take me to the moment that you folks won—what did that feel like? And then what did it feel like immediately realizing like, “Oh, we actually still have a lot of work to do”? Clove, I'll have you go first and then maybe I'll have Razija jump in as well.

Clove: Yeah, I mean, winning was an amazing feeling. It did feel like the biggest victory ever, especially because we're talking about a timeframe of June to January at that point, so many hours. And I think what people also don't necessarily talk about or realize is that union organizing is not paid.

We're all doing this in addition to the work that we're doing for Sunergos. And so it was just months and months and months of that. Then, after winning, realizing that, “Okay, this is not over. Now we're gonna have to negotiate with these same people that were trying to stop us from having this in the first place.”

It was kind of like a—I don't wanna say an “oh shit” moment, but it was like, “Okay, the fight's not over. This is round two and it's gonna be maybe even more difficult.”

Razija: I was really excited. I came into Sunergos—the union drive had already started happening and I was quite antsy and excited to see where it would go. I've been pro-union from the start. And it was really exciting to know that I was going into what could potentially be a union coffee shop, because I think that's just the dream, in terms of being a barista, is having a seat at the table for the company that you work for.

But then, after we won our union and the negotiation started, it just became apparent that there was this feeling from management that this was going to be something really easy and that we would bend to their will and that they would not allow us the power to make decisions.

And that even though we won our union and won union power, it was still their business. And this just stark realization that they were not willing to meet us in the middle or at all, frankly—it was just their way or the highway. That's when I realized that this was definitely an uphill battle in that we had a lot of work ahead of us.

Ashley: I think something that comes up a lot in union conversations is that this is about money, and certainly it is—money is a subset of what this is about—but when I hear people talk about negotiating or talking to their bosses, it becomes clear that it's much more about power and control. I wanna talk a little bit more about that.

I'm kind of saying that out loud so that I can ask you more about it later. But I wanna keep on the topic of negotiating and I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about the nuts and bolts of it. How often have you folks sat down? What did it look like when you sat down with management or leadership? Have they been avoidant? I know that's a lot of questions, but maybe you can walk me through some of those things if you can. I'm not sure how much you can say to that topic. So maybe Razija, you can jump in first.

Razija: We've had a total of six negotiation meetings so far. Honestly, we haven't made much progress. I mean, we haven't come to any tentative agreements. So it feels like we are just kind of talking at each other for the sake of talking. I mean, avoidant is a great way to describe it.

I think they know that if they meet with us genuinely, they will lose some of the power that they have. And I think the fact they haven't hired a lawyer until recently has really, really affected us in the ways that we can move forward. Because ultimately when they say they don't know how to negotiate in a way that a union would, it gives them some semblance of power in terms of, “Well, we don't have to do it your way, we can do it this way.”

So it's just been a very frustrating process because we haven't gotten anywhere and it's been months since we've won our union. And we've just kind of been talking at them while they've been nagging at us and lecturing us on things that don't actually matter.

Ashley: Can you speak more to that?

Razija: Yeah, I think the best example, which we mentioned earlier, was just that they look at us and tell us that if our jobs aren't paying enough or if we are unhappy with certain things that we wanna negotiate on, why we just don't leave.

In those moments it's really hard to negotiate because you have recognized that your employer just doesn't value you as an employee and doesn't value your labor. It just becomes a very frustrating negotiation process where they are trying to exert as much control and power as possible.

Ashley: That feels like such a bizarre and misguided viewpoint to take as leadership, because I think that one of the things that people miss when it comes to union organizing is that, in a way, it's really workers saying, “We care about this job. We want to work here. We're trying to make this viable not just for ourselves, but for anybody who steps into the room.”

So to be told that the love and care that you take for your workplace and the work that you do is wholly unimportant and you should just go is really sad actually. It's really sad.

Clove: It just really goes to show how much of a difference in value there is meeting with the owners of where you work. To be told essentially, point blank, that they don't value your labor—I think that's what you said already—but it's very frustrating and it's honestly very insulting to be doing so much work to prove that we want to stay at this job and we care about this job and we like this job and we just need to be making more money.

Also, not even just need to be making more money, but we need the company to do what they say they want to do, which is to take care of the community and take care of baristas.

Like I said earlier, you can say that all you want, but they're not actually doing anything to prove that. And in fact, they're saying and doing things to prove the opposite. It's been interesting and hearing that question specifically was wild.

Ashley: Especially in an era where we demand so much from workers, especially hourly workers or people who work in service industries. We expect loyalty. We expect perfect customer service. We expect the performance of emotional labor and then to be told, “Actually, you can just leave,” is pretty insulting and also just misses the point of what makes your business actually valuable. People come to coffee shops to see baristas and to enjoy the fruit of their labor, to enjoy the beautiful coffee that you folks make.

Clove: Right, and I had a customer just last week come in and say, “Oh, I came in the other day and I didn't recognize any of the people working here. What's going on? Like, are you all hiring new people?” and essentially being kind of upset that the turnover is so high. We're the ones building relationships with these people.

And so if you're telling us to just leave, it's like, “Okay, do you want us to not form relationships with these [people]?” To want your turnover to be high or just tell your employees that if they want better, just go find it somewhere else because we're not gonna provide that for you, we're not gonna give that to you and you're asking for too much asking for a living wage—just asking for too much. And you're not gonna find that here.

Ashley: When you first went to the negotiation table, what did that look like for you folks that are part of the union and part of the committee? How did you folks decide on what things you wanted to present to the Sunergos leadership, and how did you vote on those things or come to a consensus on what was important to you?

Clove: I think a lot of it was before we even went to the negotiation table in the first place. We were holding meetings for anyone that works at Sunergos, all the baristas to see what was really important to people. We sent out surveys to really gather what everyone's priorities were and what they wanted out of this contract.

There's five of us on the committee, but we know that it's not just the five of us making all the decisions. This is a collective effort and we wanted it to be representative of everyone. The committee also, before even going to the table, met at least three times to talk about proposals and really just go through section by section and make sure that it was really solid before presenting it to the owners.

Ashley: What were some of the things that were the most important to you besides—and we've talked a lot about wages. Are there other things that you really wanted to get across to ownership or things that you wanted to have codified in a contract?

Razija: Yeah. Besides wages, I think some of the other things that we looked at were when you're calling [out], the procedure for that; disciplinary procedures; and what to do in cases of bad weather. When the store closes, do we get paid or not? Who do we contact because of that? Do we even have a say in what stores close and which ones don’t?

Louisville has a really turbulent weather pattern, so one day it can be great and then overnight suddenly there is an ice storm. And we don't get any say in figuring out whether we're gonna go in or not. It's just management that doesn't really know our unique experiences in terms of where we're coming from, what kind of car we have.

That is one big thing that we've really wanted, is to just have a seat at the table in terms of making those decisions that directly affect us and our pay.

Ashley: I love the phrase, “A seat at the table.” I think it's one that's used a lot, but I think that it really exemplifies what it means to unionize, because as we were talking about earlier, unionizing is about saying, “Hey, we care about this place and we wanna make it better for everybody here. We want a say in what that looks like. And we as the baristas, the people who work here every day, we have opinions about that. We know what our jobs are like. We want you to trust us to tell you what our experiences are like.”

It goes back to that idea of power as well, that we don't wanna just be told, “Hey, you have to do this, you have to do that, and take it or leave it.”

But like, “Hey, we actually have control over what our day-to-day looks like.” It seems, just based on what I've read about unionizing and the lack of response from ownership—I haven't seen a single quote from ownership in any of the news articles that I looked at—to me, it seems like ownership wants their power to be unquestioned, but they also don't wanna justify it.

Clove: Right. I think a lot of this battle has been about power, truly. And the reason we unionized in the first place was to gain more power as workers to where it isn't just one guy's word is law and we have to follow whatever upper management says, and we don't get a say—because Sunergos claims to value transparency, but that's never been the case.

We've just been looking for more, actual transparency so that we can—we're the ones doing the work every day. We're the ones that show up to the store and open the store and talk to customers and serve coffee. Without us, it wouldn't happen. And so why shouldn't we deserve a say in what our working conditions are and what we experience day to day?

Ashley: There's also something too, and maybe this is out of scope. Maybe we're only talking about retail employees in this scenario, but there's something to me as I was thinking about Sunergos, I was like, “Oh, Sunergos is also a roastery.” What does it say about Sunergos as a company that buys green coffee from farmers, if they can't confidently say, “We believe in our baristas and we're gonna pay them a living wage.” This has implications across the supply stream.

Clove: Right, exactly. And the people that work in the roastery, I think only get paid $10 an hour, and they're untipped.

We also also have our own bakery to make all of our food that we sell. The bakery people make about $10-11, and they're also untipped. There's a whole process of buying the bean and then roasting it and then it coming to the baristas and then us serving it to the community.

And we at Sunergos are very highly trained as far as like specialty coffee goes. I've worked at two other coffee shops in Louisville and never received the amount of training that we still go through at Sunergos. I've worked here two years and every couple months, I have to do a steaming milk module or an espresso training just to refresh our skill, make sure that we're elevating our craft.

They want us to be very, very dedicated to this without valuing—the level of value versus the level of what they expect from us does not add up.

Ashley: Just to clarify, the union, is it covering that entire group of workers that you discussed, or is this just for the retail employees?

[ASHLEY: IS THIS CLOVE OR RAZIJA?] It's the entire group. It's any hourly worker at Sunergos, so it's roastery and bakery people as well.

Ashley: Going back to the negotiations that you folks have had, and the fact that the Sunergos leadership have just hired lawyers, there seems to be some level of like willful ignorance happening here. Like, “Oh, we don't know what to do and we just hired a lawyer,” which seems wild to me.

But you know, what do I know? And I'm wondering if that's the sense that you folks have felt, like, “Oh, we don't know how to do this,” or, “We can't bargain because we don't know. Let's finally hire a lawyer.” It seems like it’s willful ignorance in favor of stalling.

Razija: Yeah, 100%. When you can say that you've never done this before, you've never had to meet a negotiation table—it allows you to make quote unquote “mistakes” that we should somehow forgive.

Or if you're not doing something correctly, that it's not necessarily your fault. It just feels like a lot of gaslighting when we point out that they've done something wrong or that they're not following the standard procedure or negotiating in good faith, they can just come back and say, “Well, we didn't know what good faith even meant.”

And it just gets us right back to square one where we're like, “You should take us seriously. We are not just children sitting in front of you, you are not our parents giving us life advice. We are your employees. You are our boss, and we are demanding things of you. And it's your responsibility to meet us where we're at and to accept whatever—not even necessarily accept our demands, but to listen to our demands and respect that we are autonomous employees.”

Ashley: Especially too, in light of the fact that like, Louisville's going through a union renaissance. It seems like you have Heine Brothers, who I believe just ratified a union. I'm not 100% sure on that. And you have other Starbucks locations who are unionizing. That's not something you should be clueless about in this day and age.

In 2023, it seems like the environment is ripe for people to understand what unionizing looks like, so it's a little bit strange that willful ignorance has been the route to go. And again, going back to like, I looked through a bunch of articles and I was like, I cannot find a single quote from the owners of this business.

Clove: I think there's also something to say that this is our first time doing this as well. I've never sat at a negotiation table.

I tried to help unionize a Starbucks a few years ago, but this is our first time doing this as well. We didn't know what we were doing before this, but we've taken it seriously and done our research and chosen to show up and do the work and get it done. It feels like that is entirely foreign to them at this point. It's interesting with Sunergos because it feels like they're trying to union-bust now, after the election has been won and they're trying to union-bust through negotiations even.

And just not take us seriously at all. And yeah, it's about power. Like you said, they don't wanna lose it.

Ashley: I'll go on record saying this over and over, but it's wild to me when people don't bargain in good faith or negotiate in good faith because the press you would receive for that—even if it's from a completely selfish perspective, I'm always like, oh my god. Like everyone would write articles about you, Sunergos, and everyone would go to Sunergos because they'd be the unionized coffee shop.

Again, it goes back to this idea of it's always about power. It's never about money, it's never about publicity. It's always about power.

Clove: Yeah, absolutely. Speaking of Heine Brothers, they announced their intent to organize a little before we did, and part of our unionization process was seeing Heine Brothers do it and saying, ”Oh, well if they're doing it, we can too, and we can jump on that bandwagon,” and together change not only the coffee industry in Louisville—because Louisville is such a big coffee city—but just the service industry in Louisville as a whole and the hospitality industry as a whole.

Seeing Heine Brothers do it and win their contract really gives us a lot of hope, although Heine Brothers and Sunergos are very different.

Ashley: I think you're speaking a little bit to this idea that there's a larger movement happening in Louisville and in cities in general. It seems like more and more people are reckoning with the idea that service workers deserve unions, that service workers are not transient workers.

That they want stability. That they deserve stability because every job deserves dignity and a living wage. And I wonder for you folks, have you seen a transformation in the way that customers understand what you do? Do you see people expressing solidarity more and more? Like what has the vibe been like in Louisville as a whole?

And I know that that's a big topic to speak to, but I wonder if you are feeling this phase shift, if you're feeling this turning of culture happening.

Clove: I think I have for sure. I mean, our support from our customers has been amazing. There's been so many people that have reached out and just asked like how they can help. I've seen a definite uptick in cash tips because that's a big thing too—people wanna come in and tip us for our work. That's changed a lot, I think.

And also just in general, in Louisville, even outside the service industry, there's a lot of other places unionizing. I know Trader Joe's in Louisville, this Lush store in Louisville, there's a pizza place called Pizza Lupo that got voluntary recognition. It's just been really, really cool to see this kind of wave of everywhere, everywhere following suit and standing up for themselves and standing up for workers' rights and everything like that.

Also, a lot of our customers are, at least at my store, a lot of our customers are fellow service industry folks, and so it's been cool to talk to them as well and maybe nudge them to unionize their own workplace.

Ashley: I feel like it always comes back to power, and I feel like one of the things that this union effort also does from an optics perspective is give you the power to tell others about what your workday is like—because you were talking earlier about how Sunergos talks about transparency and about taking care of the community.

And as a union you're able to say, “Actually this is what our day-to-day looks like,” as opposed to leadership being able to control the narrative of what your day-to-day looks like. That probably affects the way that customers treat you. So being able to say, “Actually this is what our real lives look like,” has probably been really powerful, I imagine.

Clove: Yeah, absolutely. I had a lot of customers who were really shocked to find out that Sunergos starts at $8.25 an hour, and just knowing that fact immediately made them wanna show their support or just have an actual conversation.

I think something really interesting about the service industry, and going back to that idea of performance, is that at least for me, I appreciate the customers who come in and see that this is a job that I'm working and that we can talk about it as a job and as work and as labor and not expect me to like, put on a smile and perform for them while I hand them coffee, if you know what I mean by that.

Ashley: For people who wanna support you, what's the best way to do that? Both in Louisville and broadly?

Clove: I mean, we have an Instagram account, it's @sunergosunion, and you'll find a link to the community support petition on there. Anything that customers can do just to show that they support what we're doing. I mean, call the store, ask to talk to upper management if you want. Tell them you support what we're doing.

I think something that is important to say in all of this is that a boycott doesn't help. Again, we love our jobs and I like working at Sunergos and a boycott doesn't help the workers. Yeah, tip when you come in, talk to your baristas. Come into the stores if you're in Louisville and let us know that you're in support of what we're doing.

Razija: And don't cross a picket line, I think comes in handy with everything that's gonna be going on soon. Don't boycott us, but if we've expressed that we're not going into work, you shouldn't expect us to provide you coffee.

Clove: Don't cross a pick line.

Ashley: That's good advice for anybody, for any union. I'm glad that you stuck that in. As we follow the writers’ union, and I think even this morning the Screen Actors' Guild also went on strike as well.

Clove, Razija, thank you so much for joining me. This has been really informative and I really appreciate that you gave us a behind-the-scenes look at what the negotiation process looks like, and I hope that you're able to get the contract that you deserve.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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