A brief history of the SPoT Coffee Workers union, the largest union of a café-restaurant chain in the United States.
BY MARK VAN STREEFKERK
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Cover photo courtesy of Jaz Brisack
More café and restaurant workers are turning to unions to make a seat at the table, leveraging their collective bargaining power for better working conditions. Gimme! Coffee baristas in Ithaca, N.Y., unionized in 2017, the Washtenaw Area Coffee Workers’ Association in Michigan followed in 2019, and in recent news, all eyes have been on Bay Area-based Tartine Bakery’s union drive. SPoT Coffee is a Buffalo, N.Y.-based coffee chain with locations on the East Coast and Canada, and last August, their workers formed the largest union of a café or restaurant chain in the United States.
“When I think about how SPoT workers began with 12 people in a union to upward of 130 SPoT workers in a union, I still feel pretty incredulous,” says Cory Johnson, an employee and organizer at SPoT’s Rochester location. “It confirms a personal assumption of mine, that restaurant workers want unions. This is the largest one so far, but it certainly won’t be that way forever. More restaurant workers are organizing, so I think it’ll only be a matter of time before someone else holds that record.”
The journey to unionize started in the spring of 2019 when Cory reached out to Workers United (WU) for help with organizing. “I’ve always worked in the service industry, and I always thought about organizing a union. I think many people in this industry, but also especially of my generation, are seeing unions as meaningful organizations,” he says.
Zach Anderson, shift manager at SPoT’s Hertel Avenue location, notes that chronic understaffing at some of the cafés, as well as other grievances, warranted the push to organize. He says, “SPoTters at that time did not have access to things like paid time off or sick pay. We were at-will employees. Given the nature of at-will, we could be terminated for any reason, or no reason at all. We didn’t have an arbitration process in which if a worker was unjustly fired we could contest that and have a neutral party examine the situation.”
Once the organizing began, workers sent a letter to SPoT management asking them to sign a set of organizing guidelines, like a corporate code of conduct. SPoT also hired an anti-union law firm to try and discourage the campaign. Workers Philip Kneitinger and Phoenix Cerny of the Buffalo location, along with several other interested employees, called a meeting with Jaz Brisack and Richard Bensinger, Workers United’s lead organizer and senior advisor of the SPoT campaign, respectively.
A few days after the meeting, Philip, Phoenix, and a store manager were fired without warning. Reflecting on that time, Zach says, “There was a lot of fear and uncertainty from SPoTters … even (thinking), ‘Oh Phil got fired, the manager at Williamsville got fired, are we gonna be next? Are we gonna be in trouble if we talk about it?’”
They called for a SPoT boycott and picketing, which lasted through July 2019. Zach cites the success of the campaign partly because Buffalo is “a very working-class, union-centric city,” and says even N.Y. Sen. Timothy Kennedy supported the boycott.
The boycott ended when SPoT signed the Non-Interference Agreement, and agreed to reinstate Philip and Phoenix with back pay. In August 2019, SPoT workers voted 43-6 in favor of unionizing. The negotiations in the months that followed led to a new contract that went into effect on March 2.
Zach was part of the negotiation process, and says SPoT management were open and receptive to hearing the demands of the union: “John Lorenzo, our chairman, has even said he’s passionate about social justice, and he wants SPoT Coffee to be the social justice coffee shop. He wants to set a new standard for coffee.”
Under the new contract, SPoT employees have significant wage increases, paid sick time, fair staffing levels, and protections from unfair discipline and firings. “People are excited to go to work today. Their attitude and outlook towards working has improved dramatically. People are proud to work for SPoT now. We’ve had a lot of people that want to work for SPoT Coffee because they hear we have a union,” Zach says.
Now the union’s mission is to increase building solidarity and power among other cafés. “We have an industry strategy in mind,” Cory says. “A few SPoT workers helped Perks café workers win their union election (March 12). It’s not enough for us to have a union at SPoT—to build power, we need to build with every worker.”
Special thanks to Richard Bensinger for his help with this article.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Van Streefkerk is Barista Magazine’s social media content developer and a frequent contributor. He is also a freelance writer, social media manager, and novelist based out of Seattle. If Mark isn’t writing, he’s probably biking to his favorite vegan restaurant. Find out more on his website.