Courtesy of Gimme Baristas' Union

Members of the Gimme Baristas' Union on Sept. 17, after announcing plans to picket for Lespier's demotion.

February 18, 2020

Baristas’ Union Wins Arbitration, Employee Reinstated

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Correction appended.

After posting on Instagram last April about her frustrations with “white women’s tears,” Rebecca Lespier, lead barista at Gimme! Coffee, was demoted, according to an update sent earlier in February by the Gimme Baristas’ Union, which has been lodged in a months-long arbitration process on behalf of the barista.

After a Sept. 29 picket helped pressure a formal arbitration process, management agreed to reinstate Lespier with back pay earlier this month, according to a Gimme Baristas’ Union press release.

Although a settlement has already been negotiated, the arbitrator’s verdict is set to come out on Feb. 19.

A coworker perceived Lespier’s April 25, 2019 Instagram post as a personal attack, the union said. In response, former Gimme! CEO Kevin Cuddeback and Gimme!’s management team demoted Lespier after interviewing multiple people about the incident, according to the press release.

In an interview with The Sun, Lespier said that her post was not a targeted attack.

“It was me venting about frustrations that I’ve had my entire life with cis-white women, and how they use their fragility to diminish my voice and voices like mine,” Lespier said.

However, Susie Shelton, a barista at Gimme!’s Trumansburg location, said that the decision to demote Lespier was justified, saying that this sentiment was shared among some other workers at her location.

“If Rebecca is reinstated, a lot of energy will have gone into someone who’s been doing a bad job and not into looking into people that she was being mean to — people that had to quit their jobs and move on,” Shelton said.

Lespier was present throughout the arbitration, and said that she found irony in the arbitration process because “throughout this arbitration, we’ve had to deal with a lot of white women’s tears,” the same topic she vented about in the Instagram post that caused her demotion.

According to Lespier, it was “pretty upsetting to know that [Cuddeback is] signing my paychecks and is in charge, and to hear that he doesn’t really respect me as a person.”

Cuddeback, however, explained that he was planning his exit throughout 2019, and that his departure was unrelated to the union’s negotiations. Cuddeback kept his position as CEO longer than he had originally planned because the arbitration process took longer than expected, he said.

After Cuddeback’s January departure, interim CEO Colleen Anunu agreed to begin the negotiation process, the result of which eventually reinstated Lespier and promised her $3,200 in back pay, according to the union’s statement.

Although the arbitration’s verdict is not yet official, Samantha Mason, a barista at Gimme!, emphasized the importance of building solidarity among customers and workers. In response to the Sept. 29 picket, the conversations with customers and 31 statements of support for Lespier’s experience, Mason believes that the conflict urged managers to take suggestions seriously.

Going forward, Cuddeback told The Sun he is “confident that the management team and baristas have both learned from the arbitration experience and that all parties will work more diligently to promote a just and productive work environment going forward.”

The Gimme! Coffee Union has taken to Facebook to share the success of the union-management team negotiation.

While the guidelines of the settlement have already been negotiated between the union and management, the official arbitration verdict is set to be made official in the next few days, according to a statement from the Gimme Baristas’ Union. Allowing the arbitration decision to be made public was part of the union’s terms of settlement, according to the statement.

Genevieve Rand, one of Lespier’s co-counsels and local labor organizer, hopes this will form a legal precedent for cases to come. She said that the team’s novel unusual approach  — replacing a trained lawyer with a pair of employees to serve as counsel — will prove that it does not take a legal background to “fight for yourself and those close to you.”

But, Rand added, “it does help to be right.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Lespier had been demoted without investigation; there was an investigation with multiple interviews. There was a previous discipline Lespier received that was not investigated, Rand clarified. A previous version of this article also stated that the “Gimme! community” took to Facebook to share the outcome of union negotiations; it has since been changed to “the Gimme! Coffee Union.