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The last few years have seen a wave of labor organizing as it becomes more and more clear to workers that what they do is not expendable, but actually the heart of every business. From walkouts to unionization, workers everywhere, from Starbucks to Amazon to your local coffee shop have come together to build and exercise their power. In this episode we explore the issues that led people to organize their workplaces, the ins and outs and ups and downs of the process, and the backlash.
On the forefront of the next labor revolution, we visit a coffee shop in Maine called Little Dog whose staff starts a union. Then we talk to Robert Chala from the UCLA Labor Center about the rise in unionization efforts among service workers and the social and cultural ethos in a post lockdown country that have led to this new wave of the labor movement.
Featuring: Episode Credits: Music:
Salima Hamirani: I’m Salima Hamirani and on today’s Making Contact. We follow reporter Jules Bradley and visit a small coffee shop in Brunswick Maine called Little dog Where the workers decided to unionize. And we talk to Robert Chlala, a labor researcher and organizer about what we can learn from the rise of union organizing among young workers in the service sector. All that and more coming up.
Salima Hamirani: Welcome to Making Contact, I’m Salima Hamirani and today we wanted to take a look at the wave of union organizing that’s been sweeping the nation in the last few years. And for that we’re starting in Maine, where our reporter Jules Bradley visits one of her favorite coffee shops –
Jules Bradley: There’s this coffee shop in downtown Brunswick, Maine.
It’s called Little Dog. I used to go there every once in a while cuz there’s a violin shop right around the corner. I’d drive up to Brunswick from Portland to get a fiddle string fixed and sit in little dog for a few hours. Sipping coffee. Little Dog is a classic cool college town coffee shop. There are these huge windows that let in a ton of light, plenty of plants, local art on the walls, and a ton of students from Boden College right down the road reading Tolstoy and drinking endless lattes.
Something else that’s always stood out to me about Little Dog was the staff. They were friendly and welcoming, but in a way that wasn’t just cookie cutter customer service. It just seemed to me that they really cared about Little Dog
Jess (they/them): Ooh, am I gonna get choked up when I’m talking about this? I love Little Dog because I know people’s orders before they like walk in the door. Like I know that that person, they graduated college here. They just moved here. I know like so many people’s stories.
Jess (they/them): This is Jess Sarnai. They started working at Little Dog in 2019, right after they moved to Maine.
Jess (they/them): I’m best friends with like all the people I work with my like whole life is that little dog, but like in a happy way. Not in like a, ugh, I’m like chained to this place, but like, I enjoy that
while I could tell that the employees like Jess loved Little Dog, , there were also all these things that I didn’t know. This coffee shop, like many places I’ve worked before, had a lot of problems that customers couldn’t see.
Jules (she/her): The turnover rate at coffee shops is so high. I feel like I would train people and then a month later they would leave and I was like, okay, that was a waste of labor, but also like, I don’t blame you.
high turnover and low pay made working at little dog difficult, but the real kicker came just a few months into Jess working at the shop.
Jess (they/them): So back up to when I first was working at Little Dog like my beginning little dog era, um, we had a period of time where we hadn’t been paid for over two weeks so very illegal, not good. It should be fairly easy for the owner of a business, like a small business to be able to to get people paid on time
Not getting paid on time was the very rotten cherry on top of a pile of all these other issues.
Problems like this often push employees to quit, but quitting comes with so many struggles of its own. So instead, Jess had another idea.
Jess (they/them): But I was like, what if we like had like a strike? Like what if we just walked out? So that was my first ever like organizing anything. That night that we knew we weren’t getting paid, like the correct day. I was like, okay, let’s close up shop right now and we’ll send our owner an email and we’ll say that we’re not gonna open tomorrow unless we get paid tonight. Like cuz this is (bleep) bullshit. I don’t wanna do that
And this is exactly what today’s story is about. What happens when workers decide to not take that bull any longer?
What happens when workers decide to not take that bull any longer? It’s a story about a small shop in a small town, but really it’s about this shift amongst workers across the country, especially younger ones who are no longer standing for poor labor conditions and practices and are fighting for something much better. (I feel like this could be a good spot for labor music to scene shift)
(SCENE 2 – Covid and Labor movement )
The walkout gave Jess a taste of what workplace solidarity is like. They started thinking about what further organizing could mean for a little dog, but this was early 2020.
(Maybe news clip — is that cliche? Could just be “early 2020”, everyone knows what that means!)
Jess (they/them): I am like immunocompromised and I knew I didn’t wanna be working in the public cuz that just seemed like the scariest option.
So Jess decided to leave little dog at the start of the pandemic.
Jess (they/them): And I didn’t see, um, many protections for people that were working in restaurants when that was seemingly like the biggest base where the public was interacting with workers.
(act end, transition)
Jess wasn’t the only one to feel this way. The pandemic brought on immense challenges for so many workers in service, manufacturing, healthcare, and many other industries across the country. The workers were often forced to work without proper p p e hazard pay or sick leave. Something had to give.
News Clips: (waterfall, blend in and out of each other, panning- some more in L some more in R)
News Clips: Big companies like Amazon, Starbucks, and Apple are facing Union pushes really across the country.
News Clips: The union on Staten Island has c clenched victory over Amazon in a New York election. That means that this would be the first major union.
News Clips: Outrage over Starbucks store closure. The workers’ union at the coffee giant, claiming the company is illegally closing.
During the first years of the pandemic, workers began to push back against worsening conditions, and we saw this huge rise in union efforts across industries
While Jess was away from Little Dog, they watched workers have huge wins at companies like Amazon and Starbucks. In the summer of 2022, a Starbucks in Portland, Maine’s biggest city voted to unionize.
Jess (they/them): I talked to some of my friends who had been working at the, the Portland Starbucks store and I didn’t know much about like, the actual process of like, okay, first you hand in a letter, after you get people to sign cards, then you have to send in your intent to like have a vote.
Learning about the unionizing process. Jess felt that same excitement they had at the walkout back in 2019. But before Jess could start a union of their own, they needed a workplace to unionize.
So they decided to go back to Little Dog.
Jess (they/them): I just missed my friends and I wanted those people to have like, Better rights and to like, know their rights more because I was hearing stories about how things have been since the new ownership took over. And I was like, yeah, I can’t have that. It’s ridiculous to me.
So when Jess heard about that new ownership change in the summer of 2022 and the troubles that came with it, they saw an opportunity.
Jess (they/them): I knew going back that I was like, I need to organize this place that needs to happen. Cuz even though like I loved working there, there were always like issues that I was like, ah, this could be dealt with better and how could we make this happen? so I went back with the full intention of like, this is going to be a union shop.
(Maybe “Which Side are you on now?)
(Scene 3: Little Dog Organizes)
Jess (they/them): I
At this point, it’s August of 2022 and Jess has come back to Little Dog with a full intention of starting a union.
Jess (they/them): So I was like, okay, like I’m just gonna be in the dish pit, I’m gonna be hanging out, trying to meet people. But honestly I would just like, and be like, so capitalism really sucks, huh? Like, I would just like say those things and hope someone would laugh, or maybe not. And then I would have a little bit of a conversation there and see if I could sway them to think differently. Yeah, I am not, afraid about talking about Marxism on the clock. I will get paid to do that. You’re completely protected to talk about organizing on the job. So I am all for it.
These whispers in the dish pit are the very first step to organizing. There’s no way to know if your coworkers have the same complaints as you unless you talk about them.
As Jess was talking to their coworkers about unions, Sophie a Brunswick Local and little dog customer was looking for a new place to work
Sophie (any pronouns): I was like talking to the baristas and I had asked them like, oh, like how do you guys like working here? and one of the baristas was. So fun fact, did you actually know that we’re organizing and we’re unionizing? And I was like, no, but tell me more.
Sophie (any pronouns): I have always dreamed of organizing, a lot of my background with organizing has come from the fact that like I grew up in a low income household. And we grew up like in Brunswick, so like there was bath iron works right down the road and we would like see all like the union guys sort of like going and like being exposed to that really sort of helped me
The Bath Iron Works Union, or b i w is one of Maine’s largest and most influential unions in a very rural state where most folks are working class, there’s a lot of labor solidarity across the generations
Jules (she/her): I have like this very specific memory of riding in the passenger seat of my best friend’s car and Going down into West Bath and just like seeing the, the b i w guys on picket lines like during like a contract year. That was definitely like, oh, like we should be supporting those guys. Like those guys like are frightened for like, you know, safe workspaces and like the ability to have like health insurance and to be paid more than, You know, dog shit (bleep)
Sophie started working at Little Dog and jumped right into organizing efforts with Jess and the other coworkers, some of whom were still in high school. They had just learned about labor movements in history class, and now they were starting a union before they could even vote. This is Kira, a high school senior.
Kira (she/her): I’ve never been involved in anything like this. I’ve definitely learned about it in history. Um, my a push class last year, we had a whole unit on like the gilded age and stuff when unions first, um, came to be about, but I have never been involved in one
Now that they had quite a few coworkers on board, Jess got in touch with a rep from Workers United, the Union, representing most Starbucks shops.
Jess (they/them): I got majority of folks to like sign cards within like a month and a half. Like we handed in our union letter, like I think a month and a week after I had started working there again, I don’t think that was something the current owner expected at all, cuz when I was interviewed I was just very like, yeah, I’m just happy to be back and making coffee
Their next step was declaring their intent to unionize to their boss in the hope that he’d voluntarily recognized the union. Since buying the shop in the summer, the new owner had been mostly absent
Jess (they/them): It was the 17th of September. We handed in our intent union unionized letter. We tried to be like, hold on, pause. But it was like a very busy day. And some people didn’t get what was going on. But we knew that, if Larry was going to be in, we had to do that that day. So we handed him a letter. I have um, we have a video of us handing him the letter actually, and he’s not really talking. He looks very upset, like livid and yeah, just kinda like discombobulated.
Jess is referring to Larry Flaherty, the new owner that took over Little Dog last summer. He owns the shop as a franchise called The Met with a few other coffee shops in Maine and New Hampshire.
Jess (they/them): Under the new ownership, I was just like, wow, the food has really gone downhill. Like on time used to be made from scratch and now it’s not. People come in who have been going to little Dogger, like maybe they graduated from Boden like five years ago, and they come back and they’re asking for something specific and I’m like, oh, I know what you’re talking about. Like I know that item. I used to make it. We don’t have that anymore. And people will just be like, genuinely like very upset about that. And they’ll just be like, okay, bye. And I’m like, uh, that’s awful. Let me tell you about our union efforts.
I reached out to Larry and never got a response.
However, he did talk to a few outlets last fall to express his confusion about the union process. He’s quoted in the boat and orient as saying, I’ve always cared about my employees. I don’t see why they need a union. I don’t support nor not support the union. I just don’t know enough about it. And the rationale behind it. Since Larry didn’t voluntarily recognize the union, the workers had to hold a vote.
Jess (they/them): We thought our vote was going to be at the end of October, but me and my coworker Lorenz both got Covid, so that was really awful. So we decided we were actually gonna do a mail-in vote.
The vote itself ended up being less of a climax than the workers imagined. They envisioned a midday walkout onto Main Street. Yes. Votes called out on a megaphone, but nonetheless, the vote to unionize one four to zero. There was a brief moment of joy and celebration, but really the fight was just beginning. (Pause and then music shift)
(Scene 4 – Sip In and where we are now)
On Valentine’s Day of this year, I went up to Little Dog to take part in a sip in. This is an action that they learned from some of the Starbucks unions. where customers come into the shop and order their drinks using the name Union Strong. It’s a way for the workers to feel that community support. But this sip in didn’t just happen for some Valentine’s Day fun.
In the three months between when the little dog workers voted to unionize in November and Valentine’s Day, life had been really hard
Jess (they/them): So during the actual voting, you hear people’s names who voted yes. Like it was like Jessica Zakk voted yes. And then Kira and Vivian. so after that I was being put on the schedule for like part-time, but I was a full-time person. And then Kira and Viv were not on the schedule for almost four weeks. Like I, uh, I felt so bad for everyone cause it was very frustrating and just like really killing morale. Good thing, like we had the camaraderie there already, but I just felt like everyone was just being forced to suffer because we had won our union boat
Since November, the shop has been very understaffed. I’ve gone up on multiple occasions and found a note on the door saying that they’re closed. And now, eight months into the bargaining process, the Little Dog Union still doesn’t have a contract.
Jess (they/them): At the end of the day, we want to come to an agreement on a contract because. That is what will make little dog run smoothly
They’ve set up bargaining meetings with the owner, Larry, that he hasn’t always shown up to. And if he has, it’s on Zoom and off camera. They can’t share the current components of the contract publicly yet, since it’s still in the bargaining process
Jess (they/them): . Like, yes, workers’ rights are important. I want to be paid more. We all want to get paid more, but also we know how little dog can be run better and he doesn’t he doesn’t make coffee. He doesn’t see the in, out, in the day to day, but we do. I would love to have a contract by summer. It’d be so nice. It would be so simple.
And Little Dog isn’t alone. Bargaining is often the most difficult part of this process. Even the over 250 Starbucks shops that have been able to win union votes still don’t have contracts.
So on a Sunday at the beginning of May in 2023, fed up with the speed and progress of bargaining, the little dog workers went on strike. (strike sounds rise up, fade out a bit under quotes, but stay consistent)
Jess (they/them): I think also owners don’t see workers as. Being intelligent cuz they’re like, oh, like I know like the, the owning class has their own views of like what workers are like and they’re like, well if you were able to do something better, you probably wouldn’t be here. You’d probably own something like I do or you would be pursuing something in like academia or whatever.
Sophie (any pronouns): I think there’s like a big misconception when it comes to labor organizing, but like the only real labor is the labor that is like extensive and intensive. You know, steelworker unions and electrician unions and plumber unions, like those are essential jobs. But it’s not the only labor that’s out there. like being a barista, that’s real work. There’s like a lot of expertise that goes into it and like creativity, um, that just doesn’t go recognized by, um, I think the majority of like the general population’s idea of labor.
Jess (they/them): we all have so many more rights than like we’re aware of and there are so many more rights like available to us as long as we fight for them. And there is so much room for labor organizing like, please like,
One of the most important things that I’ve learned from the folks at Little Dog is that unionizing requires incredibly hard work and an immense amount of solidarity from your coworkers and your wider community. And the Little Dog Union has plenty of both
Sophie (any pronouns): So it doesn’t take a genius to be able to organize. It just takes a lot of practice and a lot of like research. But that research comes from the relationships that you build in your community.
Sophie (any pronouns): Yeah. Yeah. So those are my lingering thoughts. I love them. I love ’em. It’s amazing. Anyone can be an organizer. You can do it. I believe in you.
As of July 2023, the Little Dog Union still does not have a contract. In mid June, they went back on strike and have remained on strike ever since. Every day during shop hours, the Little Dog Union and their supporters gather on the street outside the shop, fighting for their right to a safe and happy workplace.
Jules (she/her): I’ll be watching their fight and you can too, follow the Union on Instagram at Little Dog Workers Unite.
This is Jules Bradley, reporting from Brunswick, Maine
Salima Hamirani: You’re listening to Making Contact, and instead of our usual break I just wanted to jump in to let you know that if you wanted more information about today’s show or to get more information about union organizing, you can visit us online at radioproject. org for the show notes and links and all the behind the scenes information. AndJules piece was produced mid summer in 2023. We wanted to let the workers resolve some of their labor disputes before airing it. Unfortunately the workers at little dog never received a contract. Instead the owner closed the shop and none of the original workers were rehired. But, techinically the union they formed together still exists and they’ve continued to help other workers learn to organize through their union name.
Salima Hamirani: So, Sometimes an organizing fight isn’t just about a win. Its about the power and relationships built through the organizing, which individual workers can continue to draw from, regardless of whether they stay at their current job or not.
Robert Chlala: the thing about union organizing is that even while it is a long, hard process to get in a contract. You already start experiencing a different workplace when you’re building a union, because you have that community, you have people who are already watching for each other’s back, and it will step up for each other. And so the ethos of the union really changes the workplace too,
Salima Hamirani: That’s Robert Challa, an assistant professor or urban sociology at cal state long beach, and a visiting researcher at the UCLA labor center where he helps run the cannabis workers collective. I reached out to rob after listening to Jule’s piece on the little dog coffee shop, because it made me think about all of the other unionization efforts i’d read about this year. And I was curious: what’s going on? why this sudden rise in young, low wage workers forming unions. Here’s my interview with Rob:
Salima Hamirani: Rob to start, You know we’ve seen amazon workers organizing, starbucks and fast food workers organizing, seemingly out of nowhere. In industries traditionally seen as unorganizable, what’s driving the need for young people to form unions in especially the service industry?
Robert Chlala: yeah, absolutely. So thinking about young workers, entering an economy, , that has been for the last like 30 to 40 years just been witnessing a race to the bottom in terms of wages, in terms of benefits, , And much of it is like concentrated folks and things like the service sector or what we call like the information sector , that includes things like nonprofits and what that means practically is that they’re coming in earning relatively less than anybody in decades has, and they’re facing conditions that are increasingly more difficult in terms of, , less flexible hours, more demands for their time or demands around productivity. And I think that, you know, we were headed down this cliff for a long time and the COVID 19 pandemic, accelerated it to some extent. Because not only on the flip side did it change what was happening in the workplace, which we’ll talk about in a second, but it also changed like the reality of what that paycheck adds up to around inflation, , which is really purposefully, you know, it’s not some accident due to, shortage of supplies, but as we’ve seen in news story after news story from the egg industry to, , the wider retail industry is a constructed inflation. Now on the working conditions part with COVID 19 did is exposed young workers especially those working in the service sector to basically the risk of premature death to literally having to show up at work be exposed to COVID 19. , with less protections and most folks with no ability to work remotely and with the same stagnant wages, , the same, difficult and dangerous conditions
Workers have just seen that they’re not really respected and that their lives are basically worth less and less to their employers, though their labor is just as valuable and just as exploited. So I think that all those things really added up to what we’re seeing is what we could call like this huge upsurge in labor organizing among particularly young workers.
Salima Hamirani: You know you mentioned that young folks are entering the economy with some of the lowest real wages we’ve seen in decades. When did the decimation of the gains by the old union movement start to crumble? why are we in this position now?
Robert Chlala: Yeah, so everywhere from between the 1930s into like the 1970s in the United States we had this huge labor transformation, a kind of a similar moment, depression, New Deal moment, in which we saw the shoring up of labor provisions, the real end to child labor. All these major shifts that built a solid foundation for what, , middle class jobs could look like that were protected., and that was brought all, like, really solely through organizing. Union organizing, , racial justice organizing, all kinds of work that was happening at the time. Coalitional work. And that built into and, like, dovetailed with the civil rights and black and Latinx, Chicanox, and yellow power movements and frankly, I think what we’re witnessing is a 30 to 40 year, revenge or backlash against much of that. And it was a very purposeful revenge or backlash. , You know, there was a group called the Mont Pelerin Society of, , thinkers, there was the University of Chicago, all these institutions can be named, and all of them were talking about how do we undo this work, how do we work to bring businesses to influence universities, for example, if the universities are leading to more organizing and leading to more, , radical movements, and that looked in many ways, including Germany, Cutting off access to education, shifting from free tuition to, you know, these pay models and then really working to eviscerate the power of unions. First with, some anti strike legislations and things like that that were to some extent present in the 1950s and 60s, but really were amplified under Ronald Reagan’s regime called neoliberalism.
Salima Hamirani: Right and I’ve been thinking a lot about the sometimes difficult work radical workers have to do within the unions themselves. Because the old school union model isn’t always progressive. How have new workers – asking for big changes in this new economy- dealth with the sometimes regressive or at least, cautious view of the unions themselves?
Robert Chlala: Yeah, I think unions are interesting because we don’t get to talk about them that much and how they work because there’s been this effort to erase them from history, basically, . But they’ve actually had some really diverse. Forms since the 30s. So they’ll have , they’re kind of bigger, what we could call social movement union models, which, have the union itself. And then it’s relationship to community organizations and see their, their fight together as, as 1 within a larger context. And then there are more of the trade union models, which is, , Can often be people around a particular trade, like carpentry or electrical work, or that’s actually how like the actors and writers guilds work, and how they’re organized, can vary differently, right? Some of them can be really collective focus. Some of them can be super hierarchical and at different phases, what often happens is unions will get really successful buildup and then they tend to, to lean back on the organizing.And focus more on what is called member servicing. So making sure the members can get their benefits and things like that and become bureaucratized and stifled and they’ll experience a new wave of organizing, shakes things up and that’s happened multiple times,?, the most recent 1 before this, , was, unions were really stagnating and like 60s, the 70s and 80s. They were not willing to talk about things like race. They’ve kind of had to establish this, what we call a piece between themselves and bigger businesses. And all of that started to crash, you know, in those first decades of the Reagan era and immigrant workers really revitalized unions at that time. They organized new collectives. They really pushed to include migrant workers at the center of conversations to fight this idea that they were unorganizable, to make sure that they were, protecting undocumented workers, and that helped transform things like janitorial maintenance work and here in Los Angeles helped transform the political landscape. But like any thing, you know. Bureaucracy settle in and so you need to shake things up. And I think that’s what we’re witnessing now, right? The thing that’s beneficial and I think really different for me as somebody who also worked in the nonprofit industrial complex is that unions have potential democratic measures built in, right? Whereas you work in a nonprofit, many of them don’t have any, you can’t vote your executive director out. You can’t really vote, period, on anything. But unions do have this, , inherently democratic structure, so workers in, like, things like the United Auto Workers have been organizing across these different sectors to create and push for leadership change and successfully getting it, which has then shifted the priorities both at the bottom and the top response, right? And this shake up of the unions has electrified the labor world. we’ve seen massive wins, not just in contracts but also in strategy – take the starbucks campaign for example. workers there have shown their impact and built this amazing solidarity network of. More than 200 shops and what felt like one of the more difficult or unreachable places to reach workers. And in doing so, I’ve like built a model this small shop model that can link all of these different places. Unions have not often. Have sometimes shied away from places where you have to go shop by shop by shop in this small way Instead of a big kind of central place to organize as much folks and they’ve showed it can be done
Salima Hamirani: And of course the United Auto Workers has seen some huge victories, but so have Amazon workers, UPS drivers, The writers guild in LA. Despite the wins, however, there remain some big challenges ahead. As we saw in the little dog story, voting to form a union is sometimes the easy part,
Robert Chlala: Especially against the largest corporations like Starbucks and Amazon, how do you translate that into contract? Because these companies have so much money to burn on anti union organizing, on illegal tactics that then get fined and then they pay like 8, 000
Salima Hamirani: so I think that points to the need to reform the actual labor laws and structures that , get us from. The vote to the actual contract and making sure there are real penalties for companies involved
Robert Chlala: one way we’re doing it in California, which I think is a really important step, is worker driven enforcement. . We can’t hire a million inspectors or regulators. That’s not going to happen overnight, but we can to empower workers and give them the tools to create enforcement models, and California is kind of piloting some of those. And while those things are waiting, really use this organizing to create wage and hour and benefit and protect and health protection floors, , in order to protect workers
Salima Hamirani: Protection floors … You mean in terms of also fighting for local and state policy, worker protection laws that enshrine some of the things workers would be looking for in a contract –
Robert Chlala: yeah, and we’re seeing that there was a fast food bill that passed California creating just that. And of course, has been counter sued a million times already, but it’s actually pushing through and the lawsuits aren’t gaining much traction. And so that is kind of a big potential way to do that while the organizing happens.
Salima Hamirani: That was Robert Challa, assistant professor or urban sociology at cal state long beach, and a visiting researcher at the UCLA labor center And that does it for today’s show. If you’d like more information about todays’ program please visit us online at radioproject.org or leave us a comment on our socials. Our twitter is making underscore contact and on instagram were making contact radio project. I’m Salima hamirani, thanks for likstening to making contact. We’ll see you next week.