Why Are We So Afraid of Unions?

Spoiler alert: it's about power

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Unions are forming at restaurants and coffee shops across the nation, but the threat of losing power makes owners push back.

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.

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 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.

A few months ago, I spent time with the baristas from Mighty Good. In April 2019, Mighty Good announced that they would be closing their four retail 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.

The party was filled with supporters. Customers, union reps, and community members showed up to express their support and sadness for how the employees were treated. I remember one former customer saying, “If anything, you folks unionizing was the best press the owners could have bought. It’s a shame they didn’t see that.”

There is a pattern here—business owners feel threatened by collective action.

Collective action, like organizing a union or a walkout, is an attempt to take back power. It’s a way for employees to express that their needs aren’t being met. In response, many business owners don’t try to navigate and understand why their employees are doing so. Instead, owners deflect, ignore, and find ways to blame those with less power for their faults and mistakes.

The owners of Mighty Good cited the difficulties of managing their cafes with a newly unionized staff as the reason they decided to close. They stated that the union “created an unworkable burden on their relationship and their family.”

Think about what that quote means—with their staff unionized, they cannot throw around power without explanation or cause. So the answer was to shut down.

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

Why are business owners so afraid of accountability? As we’ve seen with CaL, the baristas who walked out were simply asking for accountability—they wanted their leaders to communicate with staff and confront decisions that harmed employees.

And yet, the owners could not tolerate being confronted. This confrontation would have been a challenge to their power—which they were unwilling to contend with.

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 encountered, and throughout our lives, we continue to replicate this dynamic (intentionally or not).

The “because I said so” rhetoric means we might never learn to justify our actions or explain our reasoning. So when our reasoning is questioned, that becomes threatening.

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 unionizing that these groups are full of rabble-rousers and their claims are not to be taken seriously. All they did was question power—and many lost their jobs because of it.

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.

Business leaders seem unable to 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 listening to your employees or deflecting blame, leaders opt for the latter.

No business owner would ever admit their concern is with letting go of their power, but let’s not mince words or find justifications. It is and has always been about power.

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