Gimme! Coffee Baristas Organizing for Power in Service Work

Categories Ithaca, Labor

Update, June 1: According to a release from the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, baristas at Gimme! Coffee voted  16 yes, 1 no, in favor of organizing a union with Workers United Rochester. The Gimme! baristas are now part of Workers United Local 2833, which also included unionized workers at the Ithaca Health Alliance.

By Josh Brokaw

Gimme! Coffee baristas are voting today, May 31, on whether they should form a union.

Baristas at Gimme!’s four Tompkins County locations are exercising their right to organize after a rapid campaign that began about two months ago.

Samantha Mason, a barista who has worked at Gimme! for almost three years, told TruthSayers News that she found a consensus among her co-workers they wanted to improve conditions at Gimme!

“We love where we work, but of course there are frustrations in the workplace we want to help improve,” Mason said. “There are patterns that keep repeating every year, every season that we don’t really have an obligatory say in. We love working for the company and we want to stay at Gimme!”

Gimme! Coffee baristas at the Tompkins County Workers’ Center. Photo: Tompkins County Workers’ Center

Korbin Richards, a barista at Gimme!’s Cornell campus location in Gates Hall, said she received a phone call from Mason in early April.

“I thought she was calling to ask for coverage at her store, and instead she asked how I felt about unions, if I would be interested in a countywide project to unionize the food and beverage industry,” Richards said. “To be honest, I was like the only thing I know about unions is they started in the late 1800s and my grandpa was in one. That was the foundation of my knowledge.”

Mason called the Tompkins County Workers’ Center workers’ rights hotline, and the Workers’ Center set up a meeting with Richard Bensinger, an organizer for Workers United/Rochester Regional Joint Board.

That meeting sold Richards on the usefulness of unions for all workers, she said.

“I learned a lot about unions and what their contemporary role is in the economy for the working class,” Richards said. “I’m very much interested in protecting workers’ rights and fighting for a fairer economy, so in the future we’re not going to be battling as much wage disparity as we’re currently seeing.”

Mason said the baristas, about 22 of whom are voting today, planned to be “transparent from the beginning” of their organizing. Pete Meyers, Tompkins County Workers’ Center coordinator, talked to Gimme! Coffee owner Kevin Cuddeback before union cards calling for a vote were passed out.

“A lot of [organizers] do everything in secret before presenting to their employer,” Mason said. “Open and communicative is the way to go. At least putting trust in your employer until you’re proven wrong.”

The Gimme! baristas’ trust in Cuddeback was rewarded. Cuddeback, who founded Gimme! in 2000, said he was surprised when the idea of unionizing was brought to him, but decided to stay neutral.

“I had a lengthy conversation with the organizing committee,” Cuddeback said, “and concluded that taking a position of neutrality best aligned with the values espoused by Gimme since its inception.”

While under federal labor law employers have to permit workers to discuss union organizing at the workplace during non-work times – e.g. in the break room – many employers do not abide by those standards. Often, confronted with an active organizing campaign, employers will take to legally sanctioned tactics like mandatory “education” meetings, where a consultant or attorney who makes a career out of union busting tells workers how bad of an idea the company thinks organizing to be.

“We weren’t really sure how Kevin would react,” Richards said, “but Kevin, he’s taken a lot of care to create an image of Gimme! He’s mindful of Gimme!’s role in the community in Ithaca, which takes a lot of pride in its progressive stances.”

An outside view of Gimme! Coffee, Cayuga Street location. Photo: Josh Brokaw/TruthSayers

Mason said, since the campaign began, she’s been asked why baristas at Gimme!’s three New York City shops aren’t joining in the union. The answer, she said, is that this campaign is focused on a “community, geographical model” of organizing.

Workers United Rochester is interested in a “locally-minded” organizing campaign for hospitality workers across Tompkins County. The idea to build the kind of union density in service work that once existed in manufacturing, when strong unions fought for wages and benefits that allowed a full-time worker to support a family.

“The stigma of these jobs is it’s transient people who here today, gone tomorrow,” said Gary Bonadonna Jr., manager for Workers United Rochester. “The more I meet folks and I see people in this industry, I don’t think it’s a matter of not wanting to make it a career … these baristas at Gimme! take their work extremely seriously. It’s difficult and challenging, and there’s something to be said about wanting a collective voice.”

“This project, we want to make it clear, isn’t about conflict,” Richards said. “It’s more of a creative process. I think that when people hear about unions or you know, there are rumors people are unionizing it’s assumed that ‘Oh, the employer must be bad, everyone must be miserable.’ That is not the case with us. We want to reassure people we’re not fighting our employer. Our goal is to make ourselves even more successful. Once we achieve that we’re hoping other employers who otherwise would immediately put up their guard would have second thoughts and be more open minded about allowing their workers to unionize without a fight.”

“The focus has been on Gimme! right now as a first step,” Mason said. “Gimme! is kind of a hub for the workforce. I feel like I fuel a lot of the hospitality workers in the morning. It’s nice to go see them after work at the coffee shop, I see them at their restaurant jobs. Hospitality in Tompkins County is its own community. I’m excited to see where this goes – it’s happening quicker than I could have imagined.”

Take a look at TruthSayers’ pitch for a tip, and then scroll down to see a message Gimme! baristas have posted around Ithaca.


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Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.
Email josh.brokaw@truthsayers.org with tips, story suggestions, and gentle criticism.
Twitter: @jdbrokaw