When sometime-organizer Collin Zastempowski took a job working at Korshak Bagels, they didn’t think it was a workplace in need of a union. After all, the South Philly shop is owned by poet-baker Philip Korshak, who’s been vocal about paying a living wage and treating workers with respect.

But when Zastempowski chatted with a co-worker about their involvement with organizing activities elsewhere, the co-worker immediately said, “‘Oh, we need that at the shop. Of course we have to have a union.’”

Over one weekend last summer, the shop’s small staff unanimously decided to petition to unionize. Korshak recognized the union on the spot. The two parties are still negotiating the union’s first contract.

Richard Minter, vice president of the union Philadelphia Joint Board, Workers United, hasn’t seen this much organizing momentum in 27 years. Starbucks employees may be leading the charge — more than 230 stores, including five in Philadelphia, have filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to unionize — but “it’s more than just a movement amongst java,” Minter said. Workers in tech, media, retail and art are forming unions, too.

“I think we’re just at the beginning,” he said.

Efforts to organize Philly’s food scene have floundered before, but this time could be different. Last year, employees of the Wayward restaurant and its adjoining hotel, Canopy by Hilton, organized a union; in March, they won their first contract. Twenty workers at Good Karma Cafe voted to unionize in March. Old City Coffee workers pushing to unionize narrowly lost an election, 15-13, in April. Multiple sources say more local campaigns are brewing.

Zastempowski and others intend to form Local 80, a union for Philly’s food-service industry, affiliated with Workers United.

If workers in Philly’s coffee shops, restaurants, and bars organize, how might they impact an industry with largely independent ownership and notoriously slim profit margins?

Institutionalizing worker power

Despite the growing enthusiasm, unions are exceedingly rare in the food and drink world, representing just 1.2% of workers in the sector. Organizing this industry has particular hurdles, Minter said, including the prevalence of transient and part-time workers.

“These are typically smaller employers — one swing vote makes a huge difference in the extrapolation of how the votes will come out at the end,” Minter added. “The economics within the industry are tougher for the employer, and ... they tend to use that as a tool to fight a union-organizing attempt.”

Though most of today’s service-industry employees lack firsthand familiarity with a union’s capabilities, research attests to their potential to improve workers’ lots. Unionized workers tend to earn higher wages than non-unionized counterparts and have more access to employer-sponsored benefits. Unions also help close wage gaps between genders, and racial and ethnic groups. In the decades that U.S. union membership has been declining — down to just 10% in 2021 after its peak of 35% in 1954 — the share of income going to the top 10% of earners has steadily risen.

One local worker acquainted with the power of unions is Shauna Reichman Lemieux, a political science student at Temple University and barista at the Penn Medicine Starbucks, where workers have filed a petition to unionize. Reichman Lemieux’s mother was in the painters union and her stepfather still belongs to the electrical workers union in South Jersey.

Before she started at Starbucks, Reichman Lemieux worked at McDonald’s. Both experiences galvanized her belief that service-industry workers need a more powerful advocate. “I’m a firm believer that corporations will only ever be self-interested and if you want any real protections against that, you need to have some sort of legal and official bargaining chip,” she said. “A union gives that.”

Reichman Lemieux acknowledges that corporations are “a little bit of a different beast” than local outfits such as Old City Coffee or Good Karma. But she shares many of the same motives as organizers there: to improve her workplace and create a formal system of accountability for her employer.

“Anything that’s given can be taken away,” she said.

Zastempowski cites one overarching commonality between Starbucks and its local competitors: “No matter the size ... every business is going to be responding to pressures of profit, paying back investors, opening new businesses,” they said. “Our demands are going to have to be balanced with what is possible for a small business to afford.”

Because they are unionized, Korshak Bagels employees were able to look at the shop’s finances and recommend ways to economize.

“We want the business to succeed,” Zastempowski said, adding that the union wasn’t formed in response to anything negative. Rather, it echoed Korshak’s social justice rhetoric, one of the primary reasons many employees wanted to work there.

“We wanted to reaffirm our support for that as well as work collaboratively to change the way the restaurant industry functions,” they said.

Limiting owners’ autonomy

Like the Korshak bagelmongers, baristas at Good Karma and Old City Coffee framed their desire to unionize as a testament to their dedication to their workplaces. After all, in this labor market, it’s easier to find another job than it is to lead a union drive.

Former Good Karma barista Suvi Williams said that although organizing was stressful, it struck her as “the ultimate sign of caring. ... I felt I owed it not just to myself but to my co-workers to create a better work environment.”

For bosses, however, the message often comes across differently.

Ruth Isaac of Old City Coffee declined to comment for this article. Korshak and Shawn Nesbit of Good Karma declined to answer specific questions but shared statements with The Inquirer.

“As a small, minority-owned company, we understand the importance of being heard,” Nesbit wrote. “Good Karma Cafe respects and supports our employees and their decision to form a union. We look forward to collaboratively working together.”

Korshak wrote that “the small-business owner (me) and unions share the perspective of hope. ... There is no discord around the core truth: It takes all of us together to get it right, to make change, and to ensure that change is for the good. Of course, how that all occurs is unknown. I/we are trying really hard to figure that out.”

One owner who has gone into more detail about confronting the prospect of a union is Larry Margulies of Pavement Coffeehouse, which has eight cafes in Boston. Margulies declined a request to speak to The Inquirer, but he penned an editorial for WGBH last summer.

“Last week, I went to my desk and read a notice that every small-business owner dreads: My employees wanted to form a union,” he wrote. Margulies weighed the plight of debt-laden employees shelling out thousands for rent against his position as an operator still recovering from the pandemic. Ultimately, he voluntarily recognized the union.

Daniel Sobol, a partner at the Philadelphia firm Stevens & Lee, has represented large and small employers with unionized workforces. Sobol explained that unions add a layer of complexity that’s especially challenging for small operators.

“You have to be nimble. You have to make changes. And before you reach that collective bargaining agreement — not that a union may not cooperate with you, some will, some won’t; different people are more cooperative — but it slows down the process,” Sobol said. Negotiations may be required to make a staffing or schedule changes. “So it can limit autonomy.”

There are financial concerns, as well, even beyond higher wages and increased benefits. Negotiations often involve lawyers, as do labor disputes, and specialized lawyers can cost more. Those processes are also time-intensive: Arriving at a final contract may take months, if it happens at all. As many as 30% of unions that win elections never win a first contract.

Changing relationships

Unionizing can mark a shift in workplace dynamics, raising tensions between bosses and employees. At Pavement Coffeehouse, fractious negotiations spilled into the public last winter.

And although union drives often unite workers, they can also exacerbate divisions between employee groups, which reportedly happened at Cake Life Bake Shop during an ultimately unsuccessful push in 2020.

The Cake Life campaign was among a spate of organizing that gained attention early in the pandemic. Another was at Milk & Honey Market, which closed altogether in June 2020 after workers picketed in front of the shop. The owners said at the time that they had been harassed and threatened.

Last month, Good Karma workers held a 24-hour strike after three baristas were suspended indefinitely for violating unspecified company policies. Representatives from Starbucks United, Old City Coffee, and Socialist Alternative joined employees from three Good Karma stores in a picket line outside the cafe’s Broad Street location.

Among those suspended was Williams, who submitted her resignation the day after the strike. She felt burned out by conditions that predated the union as well as new ones that developed after its formation.

“I was starting to feel stressed going into work,” Williams said. Several other co-workers also quit recently, and the store’s Walnut Street location is temporarily closed due to staffing shortages.

Williams doesn’t regret her work organizing Good Karma employees and plans to be as involved as possible in the bargaining process. “It was the best thing I could have done,” she said. She’s looking for a new job. Asked whether she’ll organize elsewhere, Williams said, “If I worked somewhere where my coworkers and I weren’t being respected and our voices went unheard, I would definitely organize.”

Searching for solutions

Labor historian Dorothy Sue Cobble can imagine a world where small-business owners welcome unionization. The Rutgers professor studied food-service organization while writing Dishing It Out, a study of 20th-century waitress unions.

Roughly a quarter of the nation’s restaurant industry was organized by the 1950s, Cobble said. It started with bartenders and cooks in the 1880s and spread to servers by 1900.

The unions served much the same purpose as they do today — raising wages, offering benefits, creating standards — but they had societal advantages, too. “They had what was called a Union House/Union Bar card that was put in the windows of unionized restaurants and bars. And this would attract not just people who were pro-union,” Cobble explained, “but because the union was associated with training and professionalism, it was thought that you get the best service and the best food in a unionized place.”

Workers used both carrot and stick to give employers an incentive to join the union. They applied pressure with “sip-ins,” in which pro-union customers would monopolize tables while lingering over coffee. The union oversaw training and discipline for its members, and also encouraged forming restaurant associations to defray costs for small business owners.

“If you’re the only place organized, you’re going to be paying higher wages than many other places and providing benefits, and that’s a challenge,” Cobble said.

Her proposal for today’s independent employers: Spread unionization to discourage competition based on the “low-road treatment of employees.”

“This is an opportunity for greater collaboration ... so that you have everybody working together and communicating toward a larger goal of making the restaurant prosper.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.