What happened when Detroit coffee shop workers tried to unionize

After baristas at the former Great Lakes Coffee went on strike, the company closed its stores. The fight for labor rights isn’t over.

Feb 16, 2023 at 6:00 am
click to enlarge Former barista Liberty Moore, 21, joined the picket line in 2022 as Great Lakes Coffee workers demanded to be recognized as a union. - Courtesy of UNITE HERE
Courtesy of UNITE HERE
Former barista Liberty Moore, 21, joined the picket line in 2022 as Great Lakes Coffee workers demanded to be recognized as a union.

The workers at the Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co. in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood were sick and tired.

After a COVID-19 outbreak infected more than half of the 20 or so baristas at the store in early 2021, the Great Lakes Coffee workers went on strike one year ago this week, seeking better conditions and union recognition.

With the help of UNITE HERE Local 24, the strike lasted for nearly five months — until Great Lakes Coffee permanently closed its flagship Midtown location, in addition to two other Detroit-area stores where the employees also worked. In August, the workers withdrew their union petition, since they no longer had a workplace to organize.

It’s not clear why Great Lakes Coffee closed those stores, which included outposts inside Meijer stores in Detroit and Royal Oak. According to its website, Great Lakes Coffee still maintains locations at Detroit’s convention center, a Bloomfield Hills Roastery, and United Wholesale Mortgage’s Pontiac campus. The workers filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the company, alleging that the store closures were retaliation against their collective action; an investigation is still pending with the National Labor Relations Board.

Great Lakes Coffee did not respond to a request for comment by deadline. The former Midtown store, located on a prime slice of real estate in one of Detroit’s most bustling neighborhoods, will soon reopen as The Red Hook Coffee, another local coffee chain.

It may seem as if the workers lost the battle. But follow-up interviews with several of the former workers involved with the strike and members of UNITE HERE reveal a young cohort ready and willing to continue to fight the war for better wages and conditions.

“I feel like if we had had the mindset of, like, ‘Oh, this is only for Great Lakes Coffee and this one cafe,’ I really don’t think we would have gotten as far as we did,” says Beck Kaster, 26. “We were all very dedicated. This is an industry-wide problem. This is a problem in Detroit. And something needs to be done about it.”

The former Great Lakes Coffee workers say in their case, organizing was easy. While it can be a challenge to unionize, especially with employers where workers are isolated from one another, it helped that due to high rents and low wages, up to six of the Great Lakes Coffee workers were living together in the same Detroit duplex, ranging in ages from 18 to 29.

“Living together made it easier because we would come to work at the same time and drive together and go home at the same time,” says Kaster. “So there was a lot of discussion before and after about how the day went, or how management was, or anything like that.”

That also meant that when the store’s COVID-19 outbreak occurred, it was difficult for the workers to avoid getting sick.

“Almost half of the Midtown employees lived together, so we all caught it,” says Liberty Moore, 21. “We were quarantining together.”

The workers say they had been feeling discontent even before the outbreak, working long shifts for little pay.

“There was uneasiness for a long time at Great Lakes Coffee,” Kaster says. “And there was a lot of talk and playful jokes about unionizing or stuff like that.”

When the COVID-19 outbreak occurred in January 2021, the workers say they asked management to temporarily close the store until the workers could get negative COVID-19 tests. In response, management said any workers who did not show up to work would be considered resigned from the company. The workers then filed an unfair labor practice charge against the company, alleging that firing them was a violation of concerted protected activity.

Negotiations with management hit an impasse, they say. And with so many of their co-workers out sick, the workers felt even more pressure on the job. One day, while venting to a regular about their situation, Kaster says it was the customer who suggested they do something about it. Suddenly the idea of forming a union was no longer a joke.

“He was like, ‘Well, you have two options,’” Kaster recalls. “‘You can suck it up and work, or you can strike.’”

The strike began on Feb. 15, 2022. While the former workers say it was scary to go on strike while precariously employed, they say they were thankful they could rely on UNITE HERE for support — as well as each other.

“I feel like living together was super helpful because it was an extremely stressful period of time,” Moore says. “Being able to talk about it is one thing, but just having your friends in the same house, and just knowing we’re all going through this together at the same time was really strengthening.”

“We would have family dinners, and talk about our striking plans, stuff like that,” Kaster says.

Max Capasso, a 25-year-old who worked at the former Great Lakes Coffee in Meijer’s Rivertown Market in downtown Detroit, says that persistently bleak working conditions caused them to unionize.

“I’ve been working in the service industry since I was 15, so none of this is new to me,” Capasso says. “And it’s really disheartening to just go from job to job, and nothing is really any better than the lastt thing because we’re in a race to the bottom, and no one stays anywhere long enough to organize. So they can just offer really low wages, and you move on to the next thing, and it’s not really better.”

Capasso says they felt it was time to do something.

“It made the most sense to me to find some way to make this a better place to work, to have some control over my workplace, and my environment, and my life — and to do that collectively, with my co-workers,” Capasso says. “I believe that value comes from the workers, not from the bosses, and that our surplus is stolen from us everyday, and we need to fight collectively to claw some of it back.”

“It’s really disheartening to just go from job to job, and nothing is really any better than the last thing ... no one stays anywhere long enough to organize.”

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Generally, when workers want to organize, they get together and sign documentation saying they want to have an election to form a union. If the employer and workers cannot agree, a petition can be filed with the NLRB to order an election. In this case, UNITE HERE says after 30 days of striking for union recognition, a petition was filed.

Great Lakes Coffee put up a fight, arguing its Midtown flagship store and the two Meijer outposts were separate employers, despite the fact that its website referred to its “family” of locations and that the company moved workers around between them. The NLRB eventually determined that the separate entities constituted one employer and that an election could take place. But in May, Great Lakes Coffee said it was permanently closing its Midtown shop, leading the workers to eventually withdraw the petition.

“The handwriting was on the wall,” says UNITE HERE general vice president Nia Winston.

“I can’t even imagine how much money they spent on their attorney bills,” Winston says. “But then to sit face-to-face with a worker that’s making $11.50 an hour and argue about why you can’t give them a little bit more, it baffles me. Their priorities were just wrong.”

She adds, “I don’t care what type of company you own, whether it’s two employees, or thousands of employees. You should listen to the workers. Oftentimes, they may know better than the management ... I tell employers that the worst mistake you can make is not sitting down and actually talking to the workers to value their opinion, because they’re on the frontlines everyday. They’re the reason why you’re a CEO, they’re the reason why you’re making all this money.”

Having worked with union efforts for more than 20 years starting as a worker at a Detroit casino, Winston says she was particularly impressed by the drive of the former Great Lakes Coffee baristas.

“I didn’t become a labor leader or a great advocate for workers until I got screwed a few times in the workplace,” she says. “But these kids, they get it now because they see it.”

Winston thinks that the pressures COVID-19 put on so-called “essential” workers — as well as the time off during the business shutdowns in the early months of the pandemic — gave this younger generation an opportunity to reflect and reprioritize.

“People are awake now,” she says.

She recalls one day on the picket line when a passerby got out of his car and yelled at the striking workers to “get a job.” Winston says she was about to go “Mama Bear” on him when the young baristas rose to the occasion.

“They were like, ‘What do you mean, get a job? This was our job,’” she recalls.

“It was clear to me that these workers were the pillars of their community,” she says, adding that when regulars stopped by the picket line to show their support, the baristas recognized them by their orders.

Workers at Midtown’s former Great Lakes Coffee Co. went on strike last year, demanding union recognition. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Workers at Midtown’s former Great Lakes Coffee Co. went on strike last year, demanding union recognition.

“I’ve had people come up to me and tell me the strike inspired them,” Capasso says. “I had a regular who told me she quit her job because she saw people demanding better and it inspired her to do the same.”

It seems many young people across the country feel likewise. Chicago’s Labor Notes conference says it saw its biggest event ever last year, with 4,000 attendees gathering to strategize on how to advance the labor movement. A number of the Great Lakes Coffee workers were present, including Kaster, who spoke on a panel.

“Meeting so many like-minded people who are willing to actually get the ball rolling and want to make a difference was really beautiful,” Moore says.

Capasso says they were inspired at the Labor Notes conference after meeting Chris Smalls, the former Amazon worker who became a labor leader for his role in organizing workers at a Staten Island facility, creating the online retail behemoth’s first union.

“He’s just a worker who took a stand with his co-workers, and because of that, he’s an icon,” Capasso says. “But like, he’s also just a regular guy.”

There is plenty more indication that the labor movement could be having a major moment among this new generation. Last year, a Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans now approve of unions, its highest level since 1965. Also in 2022, the number of union workers in the U.S. grew to 14.3 million, or 10.1% of the workforce, though that number is still down from when union members peaked at an estimated 21 million in 1979.

Workers at Starbucks coffee chains across the country have also moved to organize their workforces in the past year, including 12 Starbucks stores in Michigan.

And even though their effort was not successful, the workers still claim victory.

“I really would hate for people to take away from this that we tried to unionize and we failed, and that’s all there is to this story,” Capasso says. “We didn’t lose at all. Losing would have been going back to work for them without a contract, or losing would have been not fighting in the first place.”

Capasso adds, “The fight doesn’t even end with Great Lakes [Coffee]. We’re all activated and educated and ready to spread knowledge and raise consciousness.”

Following Great Lakes Coffee’s store closures, Capasso has continued to work with UNITE HERE, helping with a national campaign to win new standards for food service workers in convention centers across the U.S, including Sodexo workers at Detroit’s Huntington Place. UNITE HERE also plans to send Capasso to this year’s Creating Change conference. And Kaster now works on the assembly line at Ford Motor Co.’s Dearborn Truck Plant, where she has joined the United Auto Workers Local 600.

The young workers say that they are committed to continuing to fight for better working conditions wherever they go — and inspire others to do the same.

“A lot of people are concerned with the world, but don’t know what to do about it,” Capasso says. “I think organizing your workplace is the perfect place to start.”

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