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  • Writer's pictureKevin Van Meter

Blue Bottle Workers Launch Independent Union: Five Questions with an Organizer

Blue Bottle Workers Launch Independent Union: Five Questions with an Organizer

Interview by Kevin Van Meter

On Tuesday, April 2nd, 2024, workers from five Blue Bottle coffee shops—owned by Nestlé, one of the world’s largest food companies—marched on their bosses in Boston, Massachusetts to demand voluntary recognition of their union. Labor educator Kevin Van Meter (he / him) speaks with Rocky Prull (they / them) of the newly launched Blue Bottle Independent Union (BBIU). BBIU is “an independent, rank-and-file led union fighting for living wages, democratic control of the workplace, and protection from harassment!”

Can you tell us a little about your work: what do you do all day, how is the work divided up, what are working conditions like, and what is going to work every day like for you?

I'm a barista and shift lead at Blue Bottle coffee in Boston, Massachusetts. So, a large part of my day is spent making coffee. It's a service job: I’m either on the register, taking orders, making pour overs and espresso drinks, and often, I am talking to customers. We have a very limited food options, but I do quite a bit of food service production. On a really busy day it could be standing at the espresso bar for two to four hours straight. On slower days it can look a lot like taking orders as they come in. But part of being a barista is maintaining the entire cafe at all times: washing dishes, producing cold brew, restocking, doing inventory. It's a lot of maintaining the café and cleaning the cafe constantly, things like that. As a shift lead, I am also in charge of making sure coworkers are taking their breaks on time, coordinating folks on the floor, putting people at the stations they need to be at, overseeing training for new hires. This includes: making sure new hires start on the POS (point of sales system) and learn how to take orders. First new hires learn how to make pour overs then espresso drinks, it’s kind of leveling up in difficulty in the café.

The working conditions at our store ebb and flow. Things break constantly, and it's kind of hit or miss of whether or not they'll get fixed. We’ve had some really terrible conditions such as raw sewage coming up in the cafes, both at mine and other ones around Boston. But we have some really great equipment that we get to work with. I love pulling espresso shots and like doing that kind of work. Some of the biggest concerns in our café have to do with harassment from coworkers, management, and also customers. Being public facing and interfacing with customers takes a toll. Service work is not easy. It often feels like I clock in and I lose a lot of my autonomy. Our bodies are regulated in a lot of ways, both with a really strict dress code and what you can and cannot be doing at any given time. Just like the classic phrase: “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” It's real and there is no real break in the workflow. If you are not making drinks, you are restocking, cleaning, doing food production. So, it's a pretty constant stream of work once you are clocked in. I've been a barista for two years and when folks are just getting started in the service industry they often say: “I'm exhausted all the time.” Both from the physical labor and from talking to people all the time, taking orders constantly, putting on a customer service persona. So, there are parts of the job that I do enjoy and there are parts of it that are really exhausting.

How did you first get the idea to try to change things at work? What gave you the confidence to try?

There is a really fun story about this. So, I was not the one who decided to start the campaign at Blue Bottle. I was on a Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) picket line, which went on for two months and I joined them for a few days. While there I met some really wonderful coffee worker comrades. And when I told them I work at Blue Bottle, they asked me: “are you part of the campaign?” When I said “no,” they put me in contact with the organizers. It changed my life in a lot of ways. I'd always been interested in unions but I didn't really understand how they worked or how to get one started. So, I had a really steep learning curve.

While our union is now independent, we were initially organizing with an established business union, which does a lot of organizing in the food service industry here in Boston. We met with them a couple times but things did not go smoothly. There was conflict within the organizing committee and some of the original organizers left the job for personal or health reasons, and one of them actually got fired. So, there was some turnover in our organizing committee for a while. But eventually we were put in contact with another Starbucks worker-organizer who then pitched us ongoing independent. For me, I had some really wonderful mentors coming up in this and they gave me a lot of this confidence. They weren't telling us what to do, but they gave us direction. They provided strategies, taught me how a campaign works and how to start organizing people.

What was your organizing goal? What was the organizing process like and how did you make decisions?

I think our organizing goal changed a lot over the first six months of our campaign. While we were originally organizing with an established union, that fell through. Along with a co-organizer, I talked to another established union but then felt that we wouldn't have had control over our union as workers; we would not have had say in our finances, in what kind of actions we could take. Things like that. Our organizing committee was concerned that we would lose our autonomy as workers, which was something we are fighting for in forming a union in the first place. So, our goals shifted over time from ‘let's join a union’ to ‘we need to go independent’. Our organizing committee wanted to have rank and file democracy, to have it run by the workers and have really direct say in what we're doing all the time.

The more we learned more about the industry and labor conditions that we were organizing in, the more our strategy changed. The process was a lengthy one because we were building a union from scratch. Forming your own union is something that workers can do and absolutely should do themselves. I really truly believe in that. Unionizing our workplaces is something that we do, it's not something that just happens to us from the outside.

In making decisions we have really tried to stay true to rank and file union democracy. We are constantly sending out surveys. I am constantly trying to get my coworkers to vote on things. Since we incorporated with the state, we elected an executive board. I am the president, my co-organizer is our VP, and we have a secretary treasurer. For us, these are largely symbolic roles as I have limited ability as president to make decisions on behalf of the union. Written into our constitution and bylaws are provisions so that all large financial decisions are voted on by the union’s membership. Then there are day-to-day things that decision’s need to be made on: What are we going to post on social media? When do we need to have a meeting? And those happen largely from our organizing committee.

We have really dedicated workers in all five cafes that joined BBIU. We talk constantly as to figure out logistics and keeping the BBIU running day-to-day. But anything that is going to impact workers directly, we’re going to be voting on.

How did your expectations around what organizing would be like measure up against how it actually was? What most surprised you, and what did you learn?

I feel like I went into this not knowing what organizing was actually like. So, my expectations were that it was going to be a lot easier than it was. A professor of mind told me that “organizing moves at the speed of trust.” And that was something we really had to learn firsthand. We can't make this union happen until my coworkers believe in it and until they trust me until they trust each other. So, the pace of organizing was a lot slower in a lot of ways than I originally anticipated. And I thought it would be a lot less paperwork, a lot less emails, and a lot less reminders for meetings. But now I know what to expect going forward.

There's a lot of just day-to-day upkeep of the union that I wouldn't have anticipated. What is most surprising is the amount of people who are willing to put in the work of organizing. As long as you give them an initial nudge—"you can do this” and “we want you here”—and open that door for them it turns out that people want to have control of their lives and have a say in what is happening to them at work. When an organizer gives workers that opportunity, they will take advantage of it.

Has your definition of success changed over the course of your organizing?

Originally, I defined success as going public or getting a contract. And those are huge things. But for me, I like to define success for our union in the very small ways: my coworkers are showing up to our meetings, they are excited to talk about organizing and taking action. Small, interpersonal moments are really important as well. A union isn't a bureaucracy, it's the relationships we are forming with one another and the way that we are able to connect with our coworkers. And it feels like a success every time this happens.

Also, I have much larger goals now that I understand what is possible. I want bring my employer to their knees. We have so much power as workers and we can really use it to change people's lives. I want change for myself and my coworkers so that we have better working conditions, better wages, better benefits, more free time, more flexibility, more ability to do things that we love. A contract can just be a piece of paper but we are thinking about how it is going to affecting us materially, how is it going to feel in our bodies and in our lives, how is it going to ripple out from our workplaces.

Currently, [and as of this writing] we are seeking voluntary recognition from Blue Bottle. If we do not receive voluntary recognition by the deadline that we gave them we will be filing for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. Next steps include having our NLRB election, if need be, then entering into contract negotiations.

I want workers to understand that they can organize a union too, they can do every single step of this process. Too often union organizing is hidden from workers and it seems like it’s being kept from us by state institutions and bosses. But we answered and you can answer these questions too: How do we create a union? How do we file with the NLRB? How do we fill out all these forms? These are all things that workers can do and the NLRB is there to inform you about the basic steps of forming a union. So, you and your coworkers can absolutely do every single step of this process. There's a little bit of learning involved, but I think that any worker can do it.

Also, I want workers to feel emboldened by the relationships that they have with their coworkers, to build upon these and to create community in that way. The independent union model has enriched my life in a way that I could not have imagined a year and a half ago when we first started this campaign. I am close with my coworkers in a way I never could have imagined, they are excited to be involved in a union effort too.

I said it earlier, unions are something that we do together and that we build together. You and your coworkers make change happen, and we are the only ones who can make changes in our workplaces that are going to improve our lives. And I truly believe that all workers can do this.

Learn more about BBIU’s fight for workplace democracy here and here, follow their efforts on social media here.

Union organizer, labor educator, and author, Kevin Van Meter, Ph.D. is a teaching fellow at the Dr. Charles A. Scontras Center for Labor and Community Education at the University of Southern Maine. Kevin writes about contemporary labor issues, labor history, and neighboring social issues. As an educator, he provides training so that union members and workers can create democratic workplaces and communities.

Interview originally appeared as “Get Organizing: Five Questions with an Organizer,” as part of a monthly column, in the April issue Labor Education in Maine email newsletter published by the Scontras Labor Center. You can subscribe here.

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