In the latest example of Philly barista organizing, a group of workers at a buzzy Fishtown bakery and cafe have announced their intent to unionize.
Employees at Cake Life, a three-year-old business that’s made headlines for being a Beyoncé favorite, delivered a letter Thursday afternoon asking owners to voluntarily recognize their union. About half of the shop’s roughly 25 employees, which include baristas and bakers, signed the letter, workers said.
“We organize not out of spite, but out of hope for a better life, involving a living wage, paid sick and vacation days, reliable schedules and protection from harassment,” the letter reads.
The union campaign builds off a burgeoning movement for baristas’ rights in Philadelphia and for food service workers’ rights across the country. It also fits into a trend of young people turning to organized labor to tackle what they see as injustice on the job. But it’s still an unusual move for a number of reasons: Food service unions are rare, as are those at small businesses. And the Cake Life workers don’t have institutional backing from a traditional union. Instead, their union, named Cafe Workers United Fishtown Local 1, is affiliating with Philly Workers for Dignity, a volunteer-run labor group that has been supporting local organizing efforts.
Cake Life did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
If management does not recognize the union, workers can file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. In order to be formally recognized, a simple majority (50% plus one) of votes have to be in favor.
Workers began discussing their issues with the job this fall, which include wages, paid sick leave, harassment from customers, and getting their schedules one week in advance, but they were spurred by several developments:
In October, when Philly baristas began sharing their wages anonymously in a spreadsheet, Cake Life workers got a raise from $9 an hour to $10 an hour. Managers said it was in response to the spreadsheet and it sent the message that change was possible, said Cake Life barista Max Black.
And when Philly Workers for Dignity did a Know Your Rights training for the workers, they realized that they were entitled to paid sick leave under Philadelphia law but had not been getting it.
The Cake Life workers were also inspired by the Starbucks baristas who are organizing their coworkers without any backing from a traditional union, as well as a fledgling group of Philly baristas from coffee shops around the city who have been discussing workplace issues.
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The citywide barista organizing effort has helped the Cake Life workers feel like they’re not alone, said barista Jamie Rush, helping to frame the issue as “a citywide struggle,” he said, instead of just one at their shop in Fishtown.
Many of the workers were initially nervous about the prospect of forming a union, said Black, 23. He and his coworkers didn’t know much about unions. Some had parents who were anti-union, while others thought that unions were only for the construction trades and teachers. And they were worried that forming a union would mean they’d lose their jobs or recommendations for future jobs. But eventually, they agreed that a union was the best option because of the legal protection that it provides.
High turnover is one of the reasons that it’s hard to organize the food service industry, and Rush, 26, said it’s been a hurdle to overcome at Cake Life too. Since the campaign has began, there’s been five or six new employees and it’s hard to bring up unionizing when someone is just starting out on the job.
Rush, who was exposed to labor organizing when he was an undergrad at University of California, Santa Cruz and the graduate students were unionizing, emphasized that the union campaign was not a comment on the shop’s owners — or even really an indictment of Cake Life as a workplace.
“They’re not bad people,” he said. “What we’re doing is not a personal attack on them.”
Rather, he said, these are issues that cafe workers face across the entire industry and with all the energy around organizing, it seemed like the right time to try to tackle them.