Photo depicting two employees of Storyville Coffee standing outside of the Pike Place location.

Storyville Coffee Workers Are Unionizing to Fight for Better Pay

by Guy Oron

Storyville Coffee baristas and bakers filed a petition to unionize on Feb. 17. If successful, the new union would represent a total of 14 workers at two locations: Pike Place Market and Queen Anne. In a public statement, the workers expressed their wishes to collectively negotiate a contract which would ensure a livable wage.

The unionization effort comes amid a wave of labor organizing by coffee shop workers across the country. According to the labor advocacy organization Starbucks Workers United, employees at 103 Starbucks stores have filed or announced their intention to file to unionize since August 30, 2021, including four locations in Seattle.

Unionized workers have the right to collectively bargain with their employers and negotiate for better wages and benefits. According to one study by the Economic Policy Institute, unionized workers earn 11% more on average than non-union workers as a result of these collective bargaining rights.

Map showing where coffee shop unionization efforts are taking place in Seattle. Created by Guy Oron.

The Storyville Coffee workers began organizing after a change to tip compensation by management in late December 2021. According to a Storyville worker who spoke to the Emerald anonymously due to fears of potential retaliation, the changes in compensation hurt the lowest level baristas the most. “They got a straight up $3 pay decrease,” the worker said. “They were getting paid $21 an hour, and ended up getting paid $18 an hour after this change.”

According to the worker, three workers quit over the last two weeks, in part due to the demanding nature of the job.

With support from fellow labor organizers, the workers wrote a series of letters to the Storyville owner and management after the December compensation announcement, asking for increased pay, transportation and parking assistance, and COVID-19 sick pay. While Storyville management made some concessions to the workers, they did not significantly increase their pay. In response to this impasse, the workers decided to unionize in order to be able to collectively bargain for improved compensation and benefits. “We might as well be backed by the power of the union and have our discussions be legally binding within the contract,” said the anonymous worker.

The Storyville workers signed up with the union UFCW Local 21, which represents tens of thousands of grocery store, retail, and healthcare workers in the Seattle-King County area. At least 30% of workers need to sign union authorization cards to trigger an election. Once this threshold is reached, the employer can choose either to voluntarily recognize the union or go to a secret ballot election. If a majority of workers vote yes, then the union is formed and can collectively bargain with the employer. 

According to UFCW 21 organizer Alex Gallo-Brown, Storyville workers have a “very solid majority of workers in the workplace who have signed [union authorization] cards.”

Gallo-Brown said unionization is historically a way for employees to be empowered. “A collective bargaining agreement is a really powerful tool to bring justice and fairness and power for workers into the workplace,” he said. “Without a collective bargaining agreement, employers sort of have free rein to do what it is that they want to do.”

According to the National Labor Relations Board, the government agency which oversees union elections, the Storyville Coffee case has been filed but no election date has been determined yet.

Storyville Coffee management has not yet responded to news of the petition for unionization, and did not respond to a request for comment from the Emerald. According to Gallo-Brown, private employers rarely voluntarily recognize unions. Some employers believe that unions could hurt their profit margins. Starbucks recently fired baristas who led unionization efforts in some of their locations in Buffalo, New York, and Memphis, Tennessee. Other Seattle-based brands such as Amazon and REI have also been criticized for using union-busting tactics.

Storyville Coffee owner Jon Phelps is a controversial figure in his own right, who was reportedly on the Board of Advisors and Accountability of Seattle megachurch Mars Hill (which had a reputation for a misogynistic and anti-gay ethos) before it disbanded in 2015 amidst multiple scandals. 

So far, Storyville workers say they have received a “great amount of support” from fellow community members, including more than 35 reshares to their Instagram post.  Despite potential backlash from management, the worker says that Storyville Coffee workers believe unionizing is worthwhile. “Even though a wage increase is a big part of why we’re doing this, the main reason why is to just to give workers a voice, because at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to.”

Guy Oron is Real Change’s staff reporter. A Seattleite, he studied at the University of Washington. Guy’s writing has been featured in The Stranger and the South Seattle Emerald. Outside of work, Guy likes to spend their time organizing for justice, rock climbing, and playing chess. Find them on Twitter @GuyOron.

📸 Featured Image: Employees of Storyville Coffee, who are involved in the union organizing, stand outside the Pike Place location. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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