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At Blank Street Coffee, espresso-pullers seek to set union baseline


Among the various retail and service workplaces where employees have formed unions since 2021, Blank Street Coffee, the private equity-backed coffee chain that first opened in Brooklyn in 2020, is one of the only ones where workers have secured a union contract.

Workers at more than a dozen Blank Street locations in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan started organizing with Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers in summer 2022. By March of last year, more than two dozen stores with over 100 workers had voted to unionize.

By late last month, workers at 20 of those locations — several storefronts closed in the interim — unanimously ratified a first collective bargaining agreement, winning annual 50-cent raises, paid time off and a grievance procedure. The workers are now hoping those contract wins become the baseline for Blank Street and coffee shop workers across the Northeast.

"This is about raising standards,” Tuscany Foussard, a Blank Street barista on the union’s bargaining committee said in an interview. “A $23 an hour guaranteed wage for coffee workers reflects current times with inflation and rising cost of living. [The contract] gives you hope and it's a really good standard.”

Sequoya Waring, another barista on the bargaining committee, said that Blank Street union members are in contact with baristas at Starbucks, Partners Coffee and Blue Bottle Coffee and that workers there are applying lessons from the Blank Street workers’ contract campaign.

“There’s a bit of a domino effect going on,” Waring said. “It seems like barista unions in the Northeast are starting to roll out.”

‘Grinding, drawn-out experience’

The first domino to fall for barista unions were Starbucks stores in Buffalo organizing with Workers United in late 2021. Despite a scorched-earth union busting campaign waged by Starbucks, more than 400 stores nationwide have organized with Workers United in less than three years.

But the thousands of unionized Starbucks workers are still without a contract. Bargaining between Starbucks and the union barely progressed until February when the two sides announced that they would begin discussions on a “foundational framework” for a contract.

As part of that framework, unionized workers received pay raises that had previously been available only to non-union employees and the two sides have continued bargaining into the summer. More Starbucks stores have filed for unionization since then, including three locations in Manhattan this week alone.

Foussard said that bargaining with Blank Street was a “grinding, drawn out experience” that took much longer than he expected. But workers said they weren’t subject to the captive audience meetings and other union-busting tactics now familiar to unionizing employees at large companies.

Union members guessed this was because of Blank Street’s desire to uphold its public image as a good-paying company that treats its employees well.

On Monday, Blank Street's U.S. managing director wrote in a letter to employees that the coffee chain would be implementing several of the initiatives won by workers in their contract at all of the non-union stores across the country. Those include wage increases based on tenure, paid time off and holiday pay, all items included in the new contract.

Waring said in a text that the move was a "clear attempt to undermine the union" and a "slap in the face" that showed Blank Street's pro-worker image to be a farce. He argued that the expansion of benefits wouldn't have happened without UFCW Local 1500's contract.

Representatives for Blank Street Coffee did not respond to a request for comment.

Alex Thompson, a barista at a Partners Coffee location in Williamsburg that unionized earlier this year said that the workers there are fighting for similar things in their contract as what the Blank Street Coffee workers got.

“Seeing Blank Street win their contract is a huge motivating force within the [Partners Coffee Union] to bargain for the contract we deserve,” Thompson said in a text message. “I hope Blank Street Union’s win and our future win can inspire other workers, especially those in specialty coffee, to fight for better conditions within their own shop!”

Enshrined in the Blank Street workers’ contract are several policies that had previously been unspoken or transient, such as extra pay for baristas with certain certifications and guaranteed hours for full-time employees.

Before contract ratification, the starting hourly pay for Blank Street workers was $17.50 but the company also guaranteed that it would pay out any difference if workers didn’t make $23 including tips. Workers had to fight to preserve that policy in the contract, Foussard said.

"I am really happy with the fact that now this is all in writing as a union benchmark,” Foussard added. “This is a better way to do business.”


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