Impending Victory At Pavement Coffeehouse: A Blueprint For Boston Café Workers

By Henry De Groot

A Short Campaign On Its Way To Victory

Pavement Coffeehouse seems set to be Massachusetts’ first unionized café. Last week, just days after a unionization campaign went public, management issued a statement of neutrality and agreed to recognize authorization cards, clearing the path ahead. With an apparent supermajority of 80 employees already signing authorization cards, union recognition seems all but assured. Solidarity to Pavement Coffeehouse employees and congratulations on this important first step!

While it often takes months or even years for a unionization campaign to unfold, the events at Pavement largely took place just in the last month, as tensions that had been building for a year—over COVID-19 and an unwelcoming working environment—exploded. 

“We are reopening into a new paradigm where workers are ready to take back the power that they deserve, and Pavement Coffeehouse workers are leading the way.”

Employees relayed to Working Mass that Pavement’s overwhelmingly white and male upper-management had created a hostile work environment over the past year—including unwelcome interactions between management and employees. Employees remarked that the situation was especially severe for women, non-binary, and queer people. Calls for improved human resources practices went unheeded. Employees wanted to organize, but the high turnover inherent to the industry was exacerbated as the negative environment drove workers to quit.

In early May of this year, one respected non-binary manager was forced out, leading to a wave of resignations in protest. Employees began traveling to other Pavement locations to discuss events, and to consider how to respond to management’s disregard for workplace conditions.

Concurrently, employees also felt a lack of communication around the progression of reopening. Management gave employees limited notice that the cafés would remove their mask mandate, and did not ask for employee input.

Some Pavement employees turned to workers at SPoT Coffee—a small New York state chain—to learn how those workers successfully unionized last year. After receiving advice, workers formed the Pavement United Organizing Committee and within just two weeks built apparent majority support, then began working with New England Joint Board (NEJB) UNITE HERE, and took their campaign public. 

Mitchell Fallon, Communications & Political Director with NEJB UNITE HERE, gives credit to the self-led efforts of the organizing committee.

“We are reopening into a new paradigm where workers are ready to take back the power that they deserve, and Pavement Coffeehouse workers are leading the way.”

From Recognition To A First Contract

The Pavement Workers Organizing Committee are using a card check procedure to affiliate with NEJB UNITE HERE, which organizes workers in industries including textiles, hospitality, and human services. 

Card check is a method of unionization where employees sign authorization cards and demand employer recognition. This process avoids the arcane and unfavorable mechanisms of the National Labor Relations Board election procedure in favor of building worker power directly. Employers are under no legal obligation to recognize card check.

Card check campaigns often start out with a small organizing committee which works—usually for months or years—to build coworker support for unionization. Secrecy is key to building majority support before the boss can catch on and start organizing to keep the union out. But Pavement workers managed to compress months of organizing into weeks.

Mitchell reminds the public that the union has yet to be recognized and that, as far as the union is concerned, it hasn’t released any information about the number of cards signed so far.

Nonetheless, Mitchell is optimistic about the prospects moving forward. The card counting process will begin soon, but the union is just looking for an independent third party to oversee the card count. 

Assuming victory, NEJB UNITE HERE will reconvene the members of the newly formed bargaining unit to build consensus around tangible economic issues and organizing structure, and begin negotiating a first contract. Mitchell does not expect management to put up a fight during contract negotiations. 

Moving to Boston for school, Angie Muse—a Boston DSA member and Pavement employee—found community in coffee.

“You walk down the street and there’s two cafés on every corner. Having a place where you can study, where you can interact with other people, is part of what makes Boston a welcoming place to live. Cafés are like the backbone of Boston, and they couldn’t run without baristas.”

Angie has been working as a barista at different cafés—including rival Tatte—for two years. They enjoy making latte art and interacting with customers.

“Pavement is doing better than other cafés, but they still do not pay a living wage. Hopefully we will be the blueprint.” Angie has a message for other baristas: we all deserve a living wage. They added that NEJB UNITE HERE has been incredibly helpful and supportive throughout the process.

Boston DSA stands in solidarity with Pavement Coffeehouse employees as they finalize the fight for recognition and transition to the fight for a first contract.

Respect On The Job And A Living Wage

Molly Robertson, an employee at Pavement Coffeehouse and early member of the Pavement United Organizing Committee, pointed to the hypocrisy of management’s messaging around inclusivity while failing to create a welcoming work environment. “The inclusive community is solely cultivated by the workers, not by upper management which is three white men,” they remarked. 

Molly sees a contract as a way to fight for a just work environment. For them, a contract would include mechanisms of accountability for management, efforts to mitigate discrimination, hire more people of color, and enforce inclusive practice, and increased transparency from management.

Angie is excited at the prospect of winning union recognition in a traditionally unorganized industry. “With the collective power that unions bring, that will open up a line of communication with upper management that benefits employees.” 

Employees have been celebrating since the news broke last week, donning red union buttons. “My coworkers make Pavement a good environment to begin with,” Angie remarked. “Going into work this week, it’s an even more happy and fun environment.”

The Importance of Solidarity

The immediate outpouring of support for unionization, with messages of solidarity from Senator Ed Markey, MA-07 Rep. Ayanna Pressley and other local politicians, shows that the community is ready to stand behind Pavement employees. 

“Especially to the working people of DSA, what we stand for can be done!”

Of course, the entire community hopes that Pavement management will do the right thing and sign a fair contract immediately. However, if that is not the case, community support will be crucial to bring pressure to bear on management. Potential forms of support include rallies, informational pickets, and community boycotts. 

On solidarity, Angie had this to say: “Especially to the working people of DSA, what we stand for can be done! Please lend your support by following our social media, sharing our story, and giving encouragement.”

“And come in and grab a coffee,” they added. “They’re good, I promise.”

Pavement Struggle Is A Blueprint

Since the news broke, NEJB UNITE HERE and Pavement United have been receiving interest from other café workers, including from Blue Bottle Coffee, Tatte Bakery & Café, and the Thinking Cup. Mitchell said the workers want to learn about how Pavement workers organized, and are curious about unionizing their own shops. 

Workers at Flour Bakery report receiving a raise of $1.50/hr last week, after news broke about the campaign at Pavement.

A victory for workers at Pavement will serve as an inspiration—and an organizing hub—for café and restaurant workers around the city. Other small, local chains or individual shops in the city seem like logical next targets. Any efforts could then progress to similar chains in the suburbs, including Marylou’s and Pressed Café.

Local chains lack the resources of large corporations to weather strikes or boycotts, while being more financially viable to organize than individual shops. Pavement Coffeehouse itself has 8 locations in Boston and Cambridge, mostly near Northeastern, Harvard, and Boston University. Especially with the current labor shortage, workers at these locations are in a strong position to demand better working conditions.

Organizing larger chains will likely be a tougher battle. Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Café Nero have war chests which empower them to weather any pressure leveraged on them locally. These companies have a lot to lose in allowing Boston to set a precedent for their national workforces. However, the franchise structure of Dunkin’ Donuts may allow for a campaign to target all franchises under one owner, increasing odds of a worker victory.

The impending victory at Pavement will serve as powerful inspiration, but café management across Boston is undoubtedly now deliberating about how to mitigate employee demands for reform. Workers at Pavement and other cafes, NEJB UNITE HERE organizers, and community supporters (including the DSA) should not waste time in aggressively pursuing campaigns for unionization at additional locations. The DSA Labor Working Group stands ready to support all efforts to organize café workers.

Ultimately, the most important factor is the self-initiative of café workers. Union organizers and socialists can provide advice and mobilize community support, but cannot replace organizing among co-workers. Any café worker interested in organizing should reach out to NEJB UNITE HERE (www.NEJB.us/organize) and/or to the Boston DSA Labor Working Group (labor@bostondsa.org).

The Wind First Shakes The Tops Of The Trees

The unusually rapid developments at Pavement may also be a foreshadowing of a trend which transcends both Pavement and the pandemic. In the historical development of the class struggle, often the consciousness of smaller sections of a class shift prior to the class as a whole; the developments of these sections often anticipate the mode and tempo of class struggle in the next period.

In this case, we have the rapid unionization of a workplace in the student sections of Boston, largely but not exclusively staffed by undergraduates and recent graduates. This is set on a background where—in the last five years—the ideas of socialism and unionism have become widely accepted by the youth, not least because of the appeal of the Sanders campaigns. 

That is to say, the ideas of class struggle and socialism are increasingly permeating the workforce through Millennial and Gen Z employees, laying the kindling for worker organizing so thick that when a spark is lit, the fire spreads with a pace and breadth unknown in decades. It seems that organizers everywhere have something to learn from the Pavement Worker Organizing Committee!

Now the job of the labor movement and the socialist movement is to grab the bellows, and fuel this fire with the oxygen of organizing so that it may spread as a great conflagration, burning up mistreatment and low wages at every café in Boston.

Henry De Groot is an editor of Working Mass, a member of the Boston DSA Labor Working Group, and a board member of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild.

Photo Credit: @UnitedPavement on http://www.twitter.com

2 comments

  1. This is all very good news, especially the fact that UNITE HERE is now taking organizing seriously at cafes and restaurants. I do have an issue, however, with the statement that this is a “traditionally unorganized industry.” In fact, many cafes, cafeterias and restaurants were organized by UNITE HERE’s predecessor unions: dishwashers, cooks, servers, bartenders, etc. In the 1980s the union, under the misleadership of International Union President Edward Hanley, walked away from these smaller shops. I am glad UNITE HERE is interested in these shops in Boston. I wish the union was similarly interested in these shops in my neck of the woods on the other coast, in San Francisco.

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  2. This is all good news, especially that UNITE HERE in Boston is part of the push for organizing cafes. I would take issue, however, with the statement that this is a “traditionally unorganized industry.” In fact, the predecessor unions to UNITE HERE organized many cafes, cafeterias, restaurants and bars all around the country. Unfortunately, in the 1980s International Union President Edward Hanley and his crew virtually abandoned organizing these kind of shops in favor of focusing on hotels.

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