Great Lakes Coffee workers in Detroit go on strike, demand better pay and working conditions

click to enlarge More than 100 people showed up to support striking Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co. employees who went on strike Wednesday. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
More than 100 people showed up to support striking Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co. employees who went on strike Wednesday.

More than 100 people gathered outside Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co.’s flagship store in Midtown Detroit on Wednesday to support baristas and cooks who went on strike and are demanding better wages, improved working conditions, and union representation.

The employees are asking for a fair contract that includes a starting wage of at least $15 per hour; COVID-19 protocols; anti-harassment and anti-discrimination protections; affordable health, dental, and vision insurance; and paid time off, including sick days and parental leave.

Baristas tell Metro Times they are overworked, understaffed, underpaid, and mistreated by management.

Max Capasso, 24, who uses they/them pronouns, has worked at the Great Lakes shop at the Rivertown Market on East Jefferson for six months at $11 an hour and says they have never received a break. Capasso says they’ve worked from open to close without any help.

“I would have to be there at 6:45 a.m. and would leave at 4:30 p.m., and I would work by myself all day doing everything,” Capasso tells Metro Times. “So I’m setting up, I’m cleaning everything, and I’m making everyone drinks, for $11 an hour.”

Living paycheck to paycheck, Capasso says their “car is held together by duct tape” because they can’t afford repairs.

Capasso has worked in the coffee industry for three to four years, and their experience is nothing new.

“This is universal,” Capasso says. “These issues always pop up where you don’t know your schedule on time, they are doing shady things without paying you, they’re not communicating well enough, they’re not respecting your time, they’re expecting you to do more than your job description while not giving you a pay raise. These things are endemic to the industry. So what we’re doing, instead of hopping around to a race to the bottom, every man for themselves, trying to get a little something for ourselves, we’re sticking together to get something better for everyone because we do deserve it.”

Starbucks workers across the country are also trying to unionize, including employees at multiple Starbuck locations in Michigan.

In January, Great Lakes Coffee’s shop in Midtown closed after employees said a lack of COVID-19 protocols led to an outbreak of the virus.

Beck Kaster, who has worked at the store for nine months, says she tried to warn management but was ignored.

“Right before the outbreak happened, myself and a coworker sent multiple emails to management asking for proper COVID protocols to be put in place, and we got little to no response from them,” Kaster says. “This lack of communication and disrespect has been a consistent problem at the company since before my time.”

She adds, “No worker should have to choose between affording to pay their rent or protecting their health and the health of their community. We will be on strike until we have our union recognized and a fair contract.”

click to enlarge Great Lakes Coffee Roasting barista Beck Kaster at the rally for employees. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Great Lakes Coffee Roasting barista Beck Kaster at the rally for employees.

The employees are requesting UNITE HERE Local 24, a metro Detroit hospitality workers’ union, to represent them during bargaining.

“Great Lakes Coffee workers are powerful examples of individuals in a historically non-unionized industry pushing to improve their existing jobs and fight for hospitality jobs to come back stronger as the economy rebounds,” UNITE HERE Local 24 President Nia Winston said during a rally on Wednesday in support of the strike. “As service industry employers struggle to win back workers, Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company workers are demonstrating exactly what is needed to do so: safer jobs with good wages, benefits, and union representation.”

Detroit City Councilwoman Gabriella Santiago-Romero and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash were also on hand to support the employees.

“It is not OK how hard we have to work for the little amount we get paid when we know damn well that when we come to Great Lakes they are doing just fine,” Santiago-Romero said during the rally. “We need to make sure that we get a piece of the pie.”

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