Workers at Pavement Coffeehouse, a Boston-area chain that operates eight cafes and a coffee roastery, are forming a union. On Tuesday, June 1, the Pavement Coffee Organizing Committee sent a letter to Pavement Coffee Roasters owner Larry Margulies, informing him of their intent to form a union and asking that he voluntarily recognize the union, avoid engaging in any union-busting activities, and participate in good-faith contract negotiations.
In a statement to GBH News, Margulies said Pavement has “no intention of working to stop our staff members from organizing. If they have an established union to present to us, we will work with them from there.”
Mitchell Fallon, a union representative for the Pavement organizing committee who works with New England Joint Board UNITE HERE, told Eater that Pavement workers were happy to see Margulies’s statement. Fallon said the organizing committee invited management to a meeting on Tuesday, but management was unable to attend. A second invitation was extended, and Pavement’s lawyers got in touch with the organizing committee on Wednesday morning. “We’re looking forward to having a broader conversation about next steps,” said Fallon. “Nothing is resolved yet, but we’re anticipating a healthy conversation.”
Eater obtained a copy of a letter sent by Margulies to Pavement workers on Wednesday in which the cafe owner wrote, “I want you to know that I hear you and am with you,” and that he and the rest of the executive team “are committed to supporting your desire to form a union.” Later in the letter, Margulies explained that he was once a recent college graduate working at a bagel shop in Allston and knows firsthand how hard his employees work, and “the kind of needs [they] have to meet in [their] lives.” (That bagel shop would later become the first location of Pavement.)
“So we will work together on this,” Margulies continued. “While the unionization process is something that is new to us, and obviously there will be much news to share in the coming days, I believe that together we will make Pavement Coffeehouse a better and more just place to work.”
The organizing effort of Pavement Coffeehouse workers is momentous and would be the first union of its kind in the state. If successful, the Pavement Coffee Organizing Committee’s union drive could inspire workers from other cafes, restaurants, and bars to follow suit. It would be no small feat for an industry in which labor organizing is notoriously difficult. Indeed, Fallon said that since going public, the organizing committee has already heard from a number of other cafe workers in Greater Boston who want to learn how to organize their own workplaces.
Prominent progressive lawmakers in the state have already come out in favor of the Pavement Coffee Organizing Committee’s effort.
“The workers at Pavement Coffee deserve better wages, comprehensive benefits, and a voice on the job,” said Boston City Council member and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu in a statement Tuesday. “I support their efforts to form a union, and I hope that Pavement Coffee will voluntarily recognize these workers if a majority votes to organize. Cafe workers put in long, hard hours serving the public and they are vital to the fabric of our city. To the Pavement workers standing up and speaking out: I’m with you today and every day until you get the union you deserve!”
Senator Ed Markey tweeted his support, writing, “I stand with the workers of Pavement Coffee and congratulate them as they begin the process of forming a union. I encourage @PavementCoffee management to recognize the union voluntarily and to not interfere with their workers’ right to organize.”
One Pavement employee told GBH News that she expects the majority of the coffee chain’s roughly 80 workers to sign union cards. A source with knowledge of the union drive told Eater that that number is already around 60, representing a majority of Pavement’s workers.
The Pavement Coffee Organizing Committee, which is represented by the New England Joint Board UNITE HERE union, will demand a pay audit across every position in the company, as well as a base salary increase for every worker. Currently, entry-level workers at Pavement make $13.50 an hour, the minimum wage in Massachusetts.
The organizing committee will also negotiate for paid mental health days and a more flexible break schedule — both crucially important workplace conditions in the best of times, but especially during an ongoing pandemic — as well as financial and managerial transparency.
Because Margulies plans to recognize the union, the organizing committee will not have to file a petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). If that weren’t the case —that is, if management refused to voluntarily recognize the union — an organizing committee would have to file a petition with the NLRB, which would then conduct a vote. Often when management won’t voluntarily recognize a union, it’s betting that it can wage an effective anti-union campaign in order to dissuade workers from voting to unionize. (A recent high-profile instance of this recently played out at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama.)
If Pavement Coffeehouse workers manage to successfully bargain for a union contract, they’ll be a very small minority among food service workers in the United States. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in the “food services and drinking places” industry have the lowest rates of union representation in the nation and are the least likely to be union members. Food service workers who belong to a union earn $110 more per week, on average, than nonunion workers nationally. That’s a difference of $440 a month, or $5,720 annually.
As it stands, the food service industry is rife with inequity and abuse (See: this, this, this, this, and this, for example), and nonunionized workers have little or no recourse. The at-will nature of food service employment (and most employment in the U.S., for that matter) makes pushing for change extremely risky for workers. Striking — an important step on the road to improving working conditions — can lead to concessions, but it can also lead to job loss and financial insecurity for workers, who can simply be fired and replaced by employers.
The industry already bakes financial insecurity into its model: Most cafes, restaurants, and bars don’t offer health insurance; the tip credit, which allows operators to pay certain workers a subminimum wage as long as they make up the rest in tips (which have a legacy in slavery), is still on the books in Massachusetts; and undocumented workers, who make up a large portion of restaurant staff, are not eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. As a result, for many workers a loss of income could be the difference between making rent and not making rent.
While labor advocacy groups like One Fair Wage are pushing legislation to eliminate the subminimum wage in Massachusetts and beyond, and as the PRO Act gains momentum, which would remove many obstacles for workers who wish to unionize their workplaces, there are signs at the legislative level that conditions may improve in the not-too-distant future. But the workers at Pavement aren’t waiting for politicians to improve their conditions. They’re acting on their own. Their actions could prove to be a guide for future union drives in the food service industry.
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