For years, cafe workers have led the charge in organizing Philadelphia’s food-service industry, a sector that’s largely free of unions. Baristas at a small chain of Philly coffee shops are about to take the effort further than many of their colleagues have before.

Workers at Good Karma Cafe will vote March 31 on whether to form a union, following a petition they filed to the National Labor Relations Board last month. Shawn Nesbit, Good Karma’s president, has been in conversation with employees at his four cafes, all in Center City. He waived a formal hearing, laying the groundwork for 25 Good Karma workers to vote on union representation with Workers United. (Managers are not eligible to vote.) If a majority of workers vote to unionize, the next step — after settling any disputes or challenges — is to negotiate a contract.

Good Karma’s election follows on the heels of Starbucks workers voting to unionize stores in Buffalo, New York, and Mesa, Ariz., this winter. (More than 100 Starbucks stores have since filed petitions to unionize, including four Philadelphia stores; seven have already voted.) Employees at Old City Coffee also filed a petition to the NLRB earlier this month. Meanwhile, the bagel-mongers at Korshak Bagels in South Philly, who quietly won union recognition this summer, are negotiating their first contract.

In a letter addressed to Nesbit, Good Karma employees said they wanted to raise their wage to $15 an hour. Baristas start at $11 an hour, with room for promotions; tips increase that rate but can be inconsistent during slow winter months or COVID-19 surges.

Nineteen workers signed the letter, which also expressed a desire for a more prominent voice in decision-making within the cafes. “One of our beliefs as a company is to benefit all of our stakeholders,” it read. “[A]s the ones who show up everyday to make drinks, food, and create positive experiences for customers, we are some of the largest stakeholders but get the least amount of say in policies that affect us the most.”

“I understand that happy employees make for happy customers and I continue to collaborate and communicate with my staff,” Nesbit said in a statement. “As a company, we will continue to serve our community in line with our guiding principle to provide an exceptional Good Karma experience for all stakeholders,” which including employees.

In an interview, Good Karma baristas Suvi Williams and Emileigh Ebersole said workers are also asking for paid time off, free shift meals, clear timelines for equipment repairs, a more structured training system, and better communication with ownership.

Employees at Good Karma had discussed the idea of a union last year but got serious about it in 2022. They began by gauging the interest of workers at each outpost. As many as 80% of workers expressed support, Williams said.

“Even the people who might have felt iffy or needed more information, they were still like, ‘Yeah, I can understand where this is coming from,’” said Ebersole.

Workers presented Nesbit with their letter late last month, giving him 48 hours to respond in writing, after which they filed their petition to the NLRB. “It was, I think, probably a bit tense from there,” Williams said.

Still, Ebersole said many of Good Karma’s workers have since talked with Nesbit. “I’ve expressed to him that our intention to unionize does not come out of any sort of ill will or maliciousness toward Good Karma, and that we hope that he sees this actually as us loving the company and just wanting to see it improve and be the best it can be.”

Both Williams and Ebersole are full-time employees at Good Karma, where they’ve worked for a year and a half and two and a half years, respectively. They frame their efforts to organize the cafes as a sign of their commitment to the company and their craft, rather than an attack on the shop’s management or culture.

“If you really just want to be a barista ... I feel like that should be OK,” Williams said. She left Starbucks to work at Good Karma, which she had first enjoyed as a patron.

“It really just seemed like a genuinely great environment to work at. And I still stand by that,” she said, citing close relationships with coworkers and regulars. “I think at the end of the day, we were just feeling unheard and not really respected for the labor that we were putting in.”

“It would have been easy to just leave, but at least to me, it wasn’t about the pay,” she said. “I wanted to make Good Karma a better place.”