Armed with signs, chants and plenty of free coffee, employees of Gimme! Coffee and community members gathered last Friday outside the Cayuga Street store of the famous coffee shop chain in an “informational picket” to protest what they contend to be the wrongful demotion of an employee.
The September 29 demonstration was spurred by the May 2019 demotion of barista Rebecca Lespier, who workers believe was demoted as a result of anti-union discrimination without just cause, according to the union’s Facebook page.
A “just cause” standard, negotiated with the chain’s ownership in the Gimme! Baristas’ Union 2018 union contract, requires that disciplinary action against employees is enacted with clear reason and that the employees are given fair warning, according to Samantha Mason, a Gimme! barista of five years who helped organize the original union contract.
“Gimme! radicalized me,” Mason said. “I think this is a common experience.”
The union covers baristas working at the chain’s three Ithaca locations, as well as their location in Trumansburg, New York, according to the Tompkins County Workers’ center website.
According to Mason, the union is demanding three remedies for Lespier’s demotion: reinstatement to her former position of lead barista, $500 which they say Lespier is owed in backpay, and a new policy that prohibits the company from using employees’ social media for disciplinary ends.
The group chanted, “Reinstate Rebecca!” and “Just cause, not just because!” Passing cars honked in support.
“Things need to be written down if a disciplinary action is going to take place, they need a first warning, and a second warning,” said Genevieve Rand, who does not work at the store but is an active organizer in the Ithaca area. “That’s how it’s supposed to go, and how it has gone for many. But for Rebecca, that was not the case.”
While community members stood on the corner of Cayuga and Cascadilla, directly outside the coffee shop, employees were stationed across the street, in order to avoid breaking any rules the company might have against picketing on company property, according to Rand.
“We here are the Gimme! picket. That over there is the Gimme! picnic,” Rand said.
The regional manager, who sat at a table outside the coffee shop, declined to comment on the protest to The Sun.
“It’s a different thing to come into work and know that if something happens, we can do something like this to protect one another,” said Ben Roach, a barista at the store. “The fact that we’re out here doing this is a privilege not everyone has.”
“Before the contract, we couldn’t challenge unfair disciplines and firings,” Mason said. “We’re trying to build worker power, and give them the confidence to go take action themselves. You can’t always rely on the legal system.”
But for the baristas, the union contract, while helpful, does not always mean feeling secure at work. “There’s no punishment for breaking the contract,” said Mason.
A breach in the contract leads to a grievance and arbitrations procedure, in which the facts of the case are given to a judge to make the final decision. According to Mason, the ownership has delayed arbitration for Lespier’s demotion three times. The current date for the case is now scheduled for October 29, 2019.
“This is not the first time Gimme! has unfairly disciplined, fired, or retaliated against pro-union workers,” Mason said. She added that “Leftist Espresso,” the name of the company’s espresso brand, is not reflective of the ownership’s values.
Rand said the company’s branding as a small local coffee business is misleading: “Customers don’t know that they’re a huge ass corporation. And they act like one. The only time they care is when we make noise like this.”
Rand said that customers can play an active role in union issues, and many have. Several customers have written personal recommendations for Lespier’s reinstatement, according to Rand.
“Customers don’t have to stop enjoying the service that Gimme! workers offer,” Rand said. “Relationships with customers is a lot of what people enjoy about working at Gimme!. People need to show that they care about employees, asking about their lives and treating them as people. This honestly does more than something like a boycott.”