Why Are We So Afraid of Unions?

Power — like many things — is inexplicably addictive

Photo by Martin Lopez from Pexels

In the last year there have been a number of grassroots movements within the coffee industry. This is not an accident.

The baristas at Gimme! Coffee in Ithaca, New York, unionized after a year of negotiations with upper management, becoming the first barista union of its kind.

The staff at Mighty Good in Ann Arbor, Michigan, decided to unionize after one of their employees filed suit against the company for racist and discriminatory pay structures.

Baristas from Seattle organized a walk-out after allegations came out that they were being mistreated by the management team at Slate Coffee. Although not technically a union, they came together to found Coffee At Large, a non-profit aimed at providing resources and advocacy to members of the coffee industry.

After the baristas from Coffee at Large (CaL) left, Slate shut down all its locations. Through Instagram, members of CaL urged leaders from Slate to communicate with them and provided space for negotiation and potential reconciliation—really, they wanted their voices heard and for corrective action against unfair and potentially discriminatory practices to take place.

On Wednesday, October 2nd, Slate announced that they would be reopening their doors. CaL posted the notice on their Instagram, and said: “Coffee At Large has not received any communication from Slate since June. We are not aware of any change in management, policy, or working environment.”

From what can be gleaned from their Instagram account, there has been no communication between the management at Slate and the baristas who left.

The baristas at Caffé Vita in Seattle staged a protest after ten baristas were fired or quit after giving away pastries to homeless people at the end of the day. The owners of the cafe issued a short apology on their Instagram, but have not hired back the baristas in question.

This reminds me of a moment shared with the baristas from Mighty Good. In March, Mighty Good announced that they would be closing their four locations, citing the hardships of their newly recognized barista union as the reason. The unionized baristas were given a severance package and asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. I was at a party with baristas, former customers, and general supporters of the Mighty Good union, and one of the former customers stated, “If anything, you folks unionizing was the best press the owners could have bought. It’s a shame they didn’t see that.”

All this is to say that there is a pattern here—business owners feel threatened by collective action. When people who have less power attempt to take some of their control and autonomy back, business owners don’t try to navigate and understand why their employees are doing so. Instead, as we’ve seen, owners deflect, ignore, and find ways to blame those with less power for their faults and mistakes.

The owners of Mighty Good, who questionably stayed open long after the date they said they’d close (the closure of the stores subsequently meant that their unionized baristas were laid off), cite the difficulties of managing the cafes with a newly unionized staff, saying “(it) created an unworkable burden on their relationship and their family.”

From the letter the unionized baristas of Mighty Good received—just four days before the first store closed.

Think about what that sentence really means—with their staff unionized, they cannot throw around power without explanation or cause. Instead, they have to answer to a collective group of people when they make decisions that affect their labor force.

Essentially, having a unionized staff means that leaders have answer to someone, as opposed to make decisions without accountability. And that is incredibly threatening.

Why are owners so afraid of accountability? As we’ve seen with CaL, that’s all their asking for: accountability.

And yet, the owners and leaders cannot be confronted with the decisions they’ve made and continue to ignore and deflect. Wanna know why? It’s because of power.

We are taught from an early age that decisions can be made without justification. Think back to childhood when you ask a parent a reason for something and the response is, “because I said so.” This is probably the first power dynamic most of us have ever had to encounter, and throughout our lives, we continue to replicate this dynamic (intentionally or not).

Most of us are not taught how to communicate our reasons for making a decision—and that’s especially true in situations where we have the upper hand and are expected to make big decisions like being a boss or a caretaker. So when we are challenged, like when someone asks us, “why?” or when a group of people band together to stand together or make a statement, we feel immediately threatened. That’s a feeling that’s both incredibly understandable and wildly illogical.

I want to point out that none of the people who unionized or walked out ever called any of their leaders names or demanded things that were wholly unreasonable. It’s a lazy jump to assume that because they’re speaking out that these groups are full of rabble rousers and their claims are not to be taken seriously. However, all they did was question power—and many of the actors in these groups have either lost their jobs or given up a considerable amount of their time and energy to stand up against injustice.

The baristas at Mighty Good wanted to make sure none of their co-workers were discriminated against. They were laid off.

The group at Gimme! wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be the victims of arbitrary decisions. They’re currently in a battle with management after a union member was demoted without just cause.

The people from CaL wanted their bosses to stop using abusive tactics to get work done. They ignored their requests for an open dialogue, and re-opened the store behind their backs.

All of these groups have been open to critical discourse and civil forms of reconciliation and negotiation. At every turn, it’s the employers who cannot budge.

It’s no accident that the groups asking for accountability often consist of people of marginalized identities. Folks from marginalized identities have had to justify their experiences repeatedly throughout their lives. That’s not to say they’re immune from falling into power tropes (I’m thinking of a business owner who might say something like, “Well, I’m XYZ identity so I can’t be racist/sexist/discriminatory.”) But, as we’ve seen, the leaders of these businesses cannot answer questions when justification comes into play. They want to be able to say, “because I said so,” without challenge or cause.

This is what I find incredibly baffling—business owners cannot budge when their power is questioned. The path to reconciliation seems so clear, and yet when confronted with the choice of even just listening to your employees or deflecting blame, they go for the latter. The goal here isn’t to find a good solution or serve the interests of a business: the goal is to hold onto power as tightly as they can.

I can only hope that business owners realize this, because it feels like there’s some cognitive dissonance. A few months ago, I planned to write an article about one of the businesses named above. When I called one of the owners for a statement, she immediately went into denial, painting herself as a victim and repeating over and over that she didn’t understand what she did wrong. When I contacted another owner of the same business and heard no response, he then told attendees of a coffee conference that I was aiming to slander him. To both, I merely sent questions for a potential story and told them I wanted to hear their side of the story.

The email I sent to the management and owners of a coffee company. He never responded (one of the other owners did but declined to speak on the record). I was then contacted by multiple people saying that they were told I did not contact him.

When we reframe the intentions of business owners—to hold onto power without question—it puts everything else into perspective. But it doesn’t answer why a business owner seems to totally miss the point of folks coming together to speak as one collective unit.

No business owner would ever admit their concern is with letting go of their power—and truthfully I doubt most even know or recognize this for themselves—but let’s not mince words or find justifications. It is, and has always been, about power.

As the folks from Gimme! Coffee picket and protest, standing across the street from one of their locations, they hold signs conveying pro-union messages. One says, “just cause, not just because.” Until owners begin to shift their reasoning and rely less on power as a form of control, workers will continue to rise up against their exploitative work conditions. Really, all owners need to do is rethink their power. I’m starting to have doubts many are equipped to do so.