Baristas at four Gimme Coffee shops in Tompkins County — members of what may be the only recognized barista union in the country — have voted to ratify their first union contract with the coffee shop’s management.
The union, Workers United 2833, formed last May and includes all baristas at the Upstate New York cafes. Its members voted unanimously, 22 to 0, on Dec. 31 to ratify a three-year contract that includes wage increases and the establishment of a paid sick day program, according to a joint statement from baristas and Gimme management released by the Tompkins County Workers’ Center on Wednesday.
Baristas at Gimme’s original shops on State and Cayuga streets in the City of Ithaca, which opened in 2000 and 2001, are covered by the union, as are baristas at Cornell’s Gates Hall and at Gimme in Trumansburg. The union does not include baristas at the coffee franchise’s three New York City locations.
Samantha Mason, a barista who has worked at Gimme for about three years and led the baristas in their unionization effort, said in an interview that the union would allow baristas and Gimme to “create a more meaningful workplace where workers can participate and have a democratic voice.”
“We’re no longer at-will employees, which for me is such a sense of relief,” she said.
Mason said the union inserted a planned renegotiation of wages into the contract as a condition of agreeing to the management’s wage proposal, which the union found unsatisfactory. The union and management will negotiate wages in December of this year, per the contract, but the rest of the contract is valid for three years, Mason said.
While negotiations between baristas and management have hit some bumps, the union effort is unique in that it has not been publicly opposed or hindered by the company, as with other unsuccessful union attempts at Starbucks and elsewhere.
“I’m a proponent of people coming together to build a better world, and I look forward to working with the union toward the advancement of the company mission,” Kevin Cuddeback, owner and CEO of Gimme Coffee, said in a statement.
Prof. Ileen DeVault, academic director of The Worker Institute at Cornell, said in an email to The Sun that baristas, “like other workers in food service and retail jobs, face a number of problems ranging from low wages to last-minute and uneven scheduling and more.”
“In recent years, there has been considerable effort made to address these problems through legislative campaigns at various levels as well as worker organizing,” DeVault said. “Gimme! workers’ success is part of this much larger movement. As many other workers have discovered over the years, coming together collectively in a union is one of the best ways to address workplace problems.”
Mason called the union effort “a journey” that has been hard for all baristas, but specifically lauded a portion of the contract that establishes monthly meetings between union members and managers.
“It’s really nice to just create this space to communicate and talk about what’s possible and really hear from people in the company,” Mason said. “It’s not something that is common in the work culture in this country.”
The contract also includes a clause that requires “just cause” to fire or discipline a barista and a grievance and arbitration process to resolve workplace problems, the statement said.
The county workers center and Workers United’s Rochester office collaborated to support the unionization effort. Workers said they believe the union is the first successful barista union in the country.
In a phone interview on Wednesday morning, Pete Meyers, coordinator of the Tompkins County Workers Center, said that Gimme’s union, composed almost entirely of young workers, is exciting for the future of organized labor.
“It’s a population that didn’t grow up with unions in their midst,” he said of the union members.
Meyers said he thinks the baristas are motivated, in part, by a realization that conditions may not improve unless they take matters into their own hands.
“There’s an intention here to organize a larger hospitality union writ-large” in the region, Meyers said. “There’s some efforts afoot that I can’t talk about in the hospitality industry.”
Meyers said that organizing in the hospitality industry is a tough task, and that while Gimme’s effort was at times difficult, it could prove to be easier than other hospitality workforces around Tompkins County.
Sophie Tantillo ’21, a part-time barista at the Gates Hall cafe since June, said she has felt supported by the Gimme management and enjoyed the wage increase she received the beginning of 2018, which she said was due to the union contract.
“It’s so nice to feel protected,” Tantillo said. “It’s nice to have an actual, legal support system as opposed to just an emotional support system.”
While the union ratified the contract in December, the workers center, management and baristas did not publicly reveal the successful vote in a joint statement until Wednesday. Meyers said that the delay was because of negotiations between the union and management, which he did not specify.
“In the spirit of the union’s interest in collaboration with the company, we all took time to ‘do it right’ with cooperation between baristas, Workers United, Gimme! management, and TCWC,” he said of the delay. “This all by itself is a reflection of how the partnership of hospitality workers, the union, and the workers’ center want to do things in general, when possible.”
Gary Bonadonna, Jr, manager of Workers United’s Upstate New York headquarters in Rochester, saluted Gimme baristas “for the dedication and hard work they put in to organize their union and negotiate an initial union contract,” calling the baristas “an inspirational group.”
He said workers trying to form a union often have “to walk through a minefield of threats and intimidation by their employer.”
“I want to recognize Gimme! Coffee management for not going down that road,” Bonadonna said. “My hope is that other employers in Tompkins County will follow this more ethical path.”