Blue Bottle Coffee Workers’ Message for Baristas Everywhere: Organize

Anyone who has worked in service knows just how demeaning it can be. Service jobs are physically demanding, often have inconsistent hours, and even more often come with management that get off on their tyrannical unchecked power. Working in a cafe, the bonds that one might form with customers are incredibly fraught since a large portion of the large portion of the labor required in service work is emotional.

Even more fraught is the near certainty that, if you work the job long enough, a customer or a co-worker will harass you in some way. Working as an individual barista without workplace protections, recourse, or genuine community is an incredibly atomizing experience. For these reasons, any barista should know just how powerful unionizing their workplace can be.

Organizing Gets the Goods

Seeing how much we had to win by unionizing, for the past year and a half my co-workers and I at Blue Bottle Coffee have been organizing to win a workplace where we have democratic control over our jobs, real protections from harassment, and a living wage. This past April, we announced our campaign as the Blue Bottle Independent Union (BBIU). When initially organizing this campaign, one of the biggest challenges we ran into was the high turnover rate. This is true for most service jobs. People either view the work as a temporary gig, job hop, or get so fed up with management that they’d rather take their chances with leaving.

Tackling Turnover

When talking to a co-worker who is thinking about quitting, I try to understand why they want to leave. Sometimes, you can work together to resolve their problem; other times, you help them find a job that will actually improve their situation. Even though it can be a significant loss to a union campaign early on when somebody leaves the job, being supportive of an individual’s ability to make their own choices means that you’ll have somebody to call on for community support down the road.

Workers told me that one of the primary reasons people left was because they felt Blue Bottle did not pay them enough to make ends meet. Although organizing a union would resolve this problem, it can be unfair to your co-workers who are in a precarious financial position to ask them to stick it out until your union eventually wins a contract. Instead, I would ask co-workers who told me that they were considering quitting, “Will this new job pay you better than what you currently make? Will you get better benefits?” Or I’d ask them if they were going into a different industry entirely. Very often, the answer to this was no. 

Building Solidarity at Blue Bottle

That said, it’s not enough to point out to your co-workers that job-hopping in the same industry means that they will still live under the tyranny of management and won’t earn substantially more. You must create a community that benefits your co-workers and makes them want to stay. Many of your co-workers may be lonely or depressed. Twelve percent of Americans report having no close friends and nearly half (49%) report having three or fewer friends. Suicides are also on the rise across most demographics. We live in an increasingly atomized society and unionizing can provide one way to combat that!

What this means from an organizing perspective is that first and foremost you need to prioritize building relationships with and among your co-workers. Fostering a caring culture among my co-workers has been the spadework which has made BBIU successful thus far. To build solidarity among your co-workers to the point where they feel confident to take the risk of unionizing, they must first trust each other. Crucially, as an organizer you need to be reliable for your co-workers so they feel as if you are willing and able to work with them on whatever problems they might have. 

Organizing Is About Building Relationships

I wish I’d prioritized building relationships among my co-workers sooner. Initially, when I was trying to organize my store, I spent too much time laying blame on management or trying to convince my co-workers of what they had to win, rather than asking them what mattered to them or listening to what they struggled with.

Laying the blame or pointing out the exploitative nature of the industry was much easier than the much scarier necessity of building relationships with my co-workers. I struggle with talking to people, and figuring out how to make your individual co-workers feel as if they matter can be even more of a challenge. Although Labor Notes has good resources for holding one-on-one conversations, talking to people and building community is much easier said than done — especially in an industry like service work, where it’s almost a certainty that there’s drama or love triangles among co-workers.

In the early days, I learned a lot from co-workers of mine who were terrific at gathering people for potlucks or drinks after work. After a few bumpy starts, we held a social event at my store almost monthly since last year. These events have included potlucks, movie nights, button making nights, and a Halloween party! As BBIU has grown and we’ve organized more stores, we’ve also tried to have region-wide events. 

Fostering Solidarity

To some organizers, our focus on building strong social bonds among workers might come across as chaotic or unfocused. I can imagine a well-meaning unionist asking, “How does a Halloween party get you a strong contract?” Simply put, the union is nothing more than the connections among rank-and-file. We build power through fostering caring relationships, mutual aid, and prioritizing fun events. We make our co-workers feel comfortable disagreeing with each other in organizing committee meetings, trust each other enough to take risks like walking out, and can intimately understand who they’re fighting for.

As our campaign has gotten off the ground, the bonds we share have grown as well. When Blue Bottle did not give us voluntary recognition by April 8, we conducted a walkout across five stores to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. Once we had filed, we all walked toward the Boston Common to watch the solar eclipse together. Watching the eclipse with my co-workers and comrades felt incredible and oddly fitting for the day. As we watched the moon rise over the sun, it was not lost on me that I would not be in the Common watching the eclipse if it were not for the people sitting next to me. These same people have changed my life in innumerable ways, and I’m greatly indebted to them for that and for the contract we will win.

Support Blue Bottle Independent Union

Blue Bottle Independent Union is asking for people to show support in the following ways.

  1. Make either a one-time or recurring donation to their worker-owned and operated union fund
  2. Sign this petition demanding that Blue Bottle voluntarily recognize their union and begin bargaining in good faith
  3. Fill out this community supporter form to stay up-to-date on their campaign and join them for any upcoming actions or events
  4. Share their barista interest form to any not-yet-organized Blue Bottle employees (or fill it out yourself)
  5. Promote and circulate information about their campaign, including the above three resources, with your friends, loved ones, colleagues, and comrades
  6. Follow them on Instagram and X/Twitter @bbiunion and on TikTok @bbiu16
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An EWOC organizer is ready to help you and your co-workers get the benefits and respect you deserve.

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