Coffee shops across the nation have been unionizing in what has become a historic swell of labor activity, including approximately 300 Starbucks locations filing for unionization in the past six months. On May 26, the first Starbucks in Kentucky, led by young organizers in Louisville, voted 19-5 for a union.
But Starbucks is not the only coffee chain in Louisville where workers are unionizing. Employees at Kentucky coffee chain Heine Brothers’ announced in April their intention to form a union, consisting of their approximately 200 workers, with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). This organizing has been met with some resistance from the supposedly “progressive” company, and workers suspect that resistance played a role in the June closure of a popular store in Louisville, where several vocal union supporters worked.
While the workers at Heine Brothers’ are energized by the Starbucks unionization efforts nationwide, their own organizing was not initially inspired by them. “It actually started independently [of Starbucks]” said barista Aaron Bone, who has been involved in the unionization effort. “It was just two baristas from two different stores, actually, who just said, ‘Hey, we would like one union.’ So they Googled ‘union’ and then they showed up on SEIU’s doorstep.”
Heine Brothers’ Coffee, a local Louisville chain since 1994, has 18 stores in the Louisville area. The company is something of a rarity: a local chain success story in a world where Starbucks is increasingly the only coffee chain with multiple locations in a single market. Heine Brothers’ success has been at least partially due to their marketing as a coffee shop that cares about the local community. Their website prominently features their donations to local nonprofits, with a list of almost 75 organizations that they have supported. They also promote their use of fair trade coffee and their commitment to environmental causes.
But Heine Brothers’ stated commitment to progressive values has not always translated to them treating their workers better. “Is it ironic that a company that claims to be progressive and supportive of the LGBTQ+ community pays substandard wages to a community that is often marginalized and faces increased societal barriers,” Jasmin Bush, a barista involved in the unionization effort, told TRNN. “We have an incredibly diverse set of workers at Heine Brothers’, and right now we do not feel like our identities are being respected.”
The organizers stressed that pay rates at Heine Brothers’ often do not rise to the level of a living wage in Louisville, and that baristas are dependent on tips from customers to fill the pay gap—a system that results in variable take-home pay and a lack of stability.
“When you start to apply for an apartment, the landlord sees, ‘Oh, this person’s wage fluctuates by like $200 a month—that’s a pretty substantial decrease.’ It just makes you look like you’re not a very stable tenant,” Bone said. “That can apply to all aspects of your life, because all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Well, I’m trying to make a budget, but I don’t know exactly how much I’m going to be able to afford for my groceries this month.’’”
In addition to the pay issues, organizers have pointed to the lack of access to quality healthcare and inconsistent scheduling as key reasons they are organizing.
“I really do think we need more healthcare, a livable wage, [and] we need more consistency in our scheduling. We are having a hard time making sure our hours are working with our schedules and trying to plan life around that as well,” Bush said. “We just want more respect from upper management. We deserve respect and we deserve to be listened to.”
Organizers have also highlighted the suspicious manner in which the Heine Brothers’ store in the Douglass Loop neighborhood was suddenly closed on June 30, which they say is indicative of the way that workers have not been respected by management. Organizer Gami Ray said that they were working when management came in and instructed them to clear the store of customers in the middle of the day before announcing to staff that the location would be closing effective immediately.
“[Management announced], ‘You have two options: You can get a severance if you want to leave the job… or [you can] choose to transfer to another store.’ She did not mention at the time that we would not have any deliberation or choice in where we were going… I [later] figured out that [my coworkers and I] had all been assigned to different stores,” Ray, who declined the severance stipend and accepted a transfer, told TRNN. “The stipend listed in my papers is not as big as the check that I would receive for two weeks of work.”
Ray pointed out that many of the workers at the Douglass Loop location had been integral to the unionization efforts. They highlighted that that location was one of the first stores to reach 100% support for the union and to sign the petition to start the formal process of organizing to form a union. “We were one of the first two [stores] to reach that, we were one of the first two to be at union meetings, we are definitely one of the stores that had the full backing and support of everyone at the store,” they said.
The closing of the Douglass Loop location was not only unpopular with the employees, it also was highly unpopular with the local community. Residents and patrons took to the Heine Brothers’ Facebook page to support the workers and complain about the closing of the store, which had been open for almost twenty years and was a frequent meeting place for people in the neighborhood.
“Yeah, I don’t buy from anti-union shops. As a downtown resident, I think I’ll get my coffee elsewhere and advise my neighbors to do the same,” said one local commenter.
Another Facebook commenter addressed CEO Mike Mays directly, saying, “Sorry Mike, closing the Douglas Loop location so suddenly and not giving employees a heads up just isn’t in keeping with the equity-first, progressive image you’ve created. It reeks of retaliation. I’ll get my coffee elsewhere.”
Ray, who says business was very consistent at the location and that they had a high number of regulars, is distressed by the hole the store closure leaves in the community: “[I feel] heartbroken for the community that we are being forced to leave so abruptly with no proper goodbye.”
Mary, a former Heine Brothers’ employee who worked at company headquarters and asked for their full name to be withheld, said that she could not remember any stores being closed on such short notice, but said that management frequently made large changes without consulting with employees or giving them time to respond. “It’s pretty on brand for [Heine Brothers’] to make big changes and tell employees last minute,” she told TRNN. “They’re so fearful of any and all pushback from employees, especially since [Mays] actually listens sometimes, that they don’t give them time to react on purpose.”
Ray also believes that management often deliberately creates a sense of uncertainty among employees, making it more difficult to coordinate and share information. “We didn’t really have the connection we had with other stores to know what was going on until we started coming together to unionize. We’ve gotten so much context that we were in the dark about,” they said.
Many current and past Heine Brothers’ employees point to the COVID-19 pandemic as a catalyst for their organizing efforts. “Conditions have been rough for a while,” Bush said. “But since the beginning of the pandemic it feels like things have gotten worse. We deserve regular communication from our managers and the company higher ups about what’s going on and how our safety is being taken into account.”
Evelia Jones, a former Heine Brothers’ barista, was involved in a wildcat work stoppage that took place at the beginning of the pandemic. Baristas closed several locations with this walkout and negotiated a $2-an-hour hazard pay increase in addition to ensuring some safety protocols.
“Being a Barista is a high-skill, often high-stress job, especially with a drive thru,” Jones said. “During the work stoppage, in order to avoid having to shut down the Hikes Lane location, owner Mike Mays picked up some shifts working the drive thru for like three days in a row.”
Jones said that Mays “was freaking out” at the workload and left early that day as a result: “So if it’s so ‘low-skill’ of a job that Heine Brothers’ only sees it worth $8 an hour, how could the whole CEO not even hang for one shift?”
Jones is supportive of the current employees’ unionization efforts and thinks that a union would have greatly assisted their efforts during the work stoppage.
“I will say that, had we had a formal union, or had we even been able to do more union organizing, before the crisis moment of COVID hit with lockdowns, etc., I feel like we would have been able to exercise more solidarity with each other and likely would have been even more successful than we were with the work stoppage.”
Mary, who is also supportive of workers’ efforts to unionize, said that she thought a union would help ensure that workers at different stores were treated fairly. “Aside from the fact that we had shared recipes and branding, each store was run quite differently,” she said. “Employees were at the whims of what I would describe as mostly entitled white, upper-middle-class proto-adults.”
Mary said that baristas’ struggles with management at different stores were also met with pushback from owner Mays.
“Any time there were murmurs of complaint, or general unrest among baristas, it was clear that Mike especially took it personally,” she said. “The way they paid their store managers made all store managers generally a particular type of person: the kind of person who doesn’t have student debt, whose moms and dads purchased their Subarus, and who were naive enough to think that they were part of an amazing, progressive, family company.”
The Heine Brothers’ employees are hoping that their unionization efforts—which have already garnered the support of Kentucky senate candidate Charles Booker and the Democratic nominee for Congress in Louisville, Morgan McGarvey (both of whom attended the recent rally outside the closed Douglass Loop store)—align the stated values of the company with the reality workers experience on the job.
“If you treat your employees better, that happiness kind of spreads throughout everywhere,” said Bush. “We already love our jobs, but we’re struggling to make ends meet. So taking that struggle off of us, that stress off of us—that’s just going to make these stores even brighter and happier and an even more enjoyable experience.”