Union efforts brew across major Louisville coffee shops
In late July, a group of Heine Brothers’ Coffee workers gathered downtown to speak about their jobs.
They weren’t there for a hiring event, or to promote the company. Instead, they criticized their employer and explained why they, like many other coffee shop workers across the country, decided to pursue a union.
“We are organizing for living wages, dignity and respect. I feel like it should not be so difficult for a seemingly progressive company like Heine Brothers’ to provide us, their workers, the face of their company, with these very basic things,” said Jasmin Bush at the press conference.
Bush, who works as a barista at Heine Brothers’ Hurstbourne location, is one of the Louisville-based company’s employees seeking changes by organizing with the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers (NCFO), a union that represents a variety of workers and is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Nationally, there’s momentum among service workers seeking to unionize and the movement has legs in Louisville, too. Like the Heine Brothers’ baristas, workers at three local Starbucks stores this year have made public their organizing efforts.
Staff at two locations, one in Louisville’s East End and one in Clarksville, Ind., voted in favor of unionizing and became the Seattle-based chain’s first employees in Kentucky and Indiana to do so. A national movement of baristas seeking to organize at over 200 stores has revitalized union efforts at a company that for decades has repelled them.
Workers at the Starbucks in the Bon Air neighborhood are in the midst of a month-long election that will end Aug. 19. Barista Aimee Houvenagle is helping lead the unionization push at the location, where she said she’s worked for almost a year. If enough workers vote in support, they’d join the Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board (CMRJB) of Workers United, another SEIU affiliate.
“As I progressed in my time at Starbucks, I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, we really need help here. This is just not working. We’re not being listened to…something just needs to change,’” Houvenagle said.
Heine Brothers’ workers are hoping to vote soon, too. Last month, they petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees labor activity, to schedule a union election.
More than 200 workers — from baristas to assistant managers to delivery drivers — could be eligible to participate. If a majority of votes are for unionizing, the workers would be represented by the NFCO, a move that would impact their and future workers’ relationships with company leadership.
Kentucky and Indiana are “right to work” states, and workers can’t be required to join a union. That means even if the NFCO or Workers United represents local baristas, employees can choose whether to join the union and pay dues.
Workers seek new conditions
Workers at the Heine Brothers’ Chenoweth Lane store aren’t all in favor of unionizing, but they see eye-to-eye on how many work duties should be handled, said Jacky Hayth, who works part-time at the store in St. Matthews and is involved in the organizing effort.
“There [are] ways the stores are run that definitely could be better run just by the people that work in them every day. It's that sort of conflict where the people in charge and making the decisions don't actually work the shifts, usually,” Hayth said.
Employers can choose to voluntarily recognize unions without going through the formal vote process. Organizing Heine Brothers’ workers and the SEIU unsuccessfully asked the company to do so. Tyler Glick, a Heine Brothers’ spokesperson, said the coffee chain denied the organizers’ request on the belief that the secret-ballot election by the NLRB would be the best option for its employees.
Both Heine Brothers’ and Starbucks have issued statements saying they do not want their employees to unionize, but will respect the results of any elections. Both companies say unions are an unnecessary intermediary between workers and leadership.
“The thing you hear a lot is, ‘You don't need a third party getting between you and me.’ It sounds almost like an abusive relationship,” said Hayth.
Workers at both companies name similar reasons for wanting to unionize: better health protections, higher wages, and more workplace control.
Hayth said they’d like to see policy changes like extending health benefits to part-time workers and revisiting a mask requirement in stores. Glick said Heine Brothers’ offers health insurance to employees who work 30 hours each week for two months.
Mila Wade has worked at the Clarksville Starbucks on Veterans Parkway since May 2021 and said she reached out to CMRJB Workers United for their help after staff at a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York, successfully voted to unionize in December. That was the first successful Starbucks union effort in decades.
Wade said employee turnover made it difficult at first to get a lot of workers on board with unionizing. But they filed with the NLRB for an election in May and voted 14-1 in favor of a union late last month.
“Everyone should want higher wages and everyone should want better working conditions. And the only way to achieve that is to have a strong labor movement in the country,” Wade said.
While baristas can receive tips to supplement their wages, workers at both companies say those earnings are unreliable and a way for employers to sidestep paying their workers directly.
This summer, Starbucks raised its minimum wage from $12 to $15 an hour for non-unionized workers, in line with a corporate promise made in Oct. 2021. It’s slightly below the city’s living wage, which covers basic needs and taxes, for a single adult without children, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.
For Louisville, the tool says the living hourly wage for an adult without children is $15.78. A single parent of one has to make $31.01 to meet their needs, while for two adults with a child, the living wage is $17.23 for each parent.
Tensions boil over unions
Despite corporate promises to respect the union election process, employees of both companies have filed complaints of union-busting to the NLRB, which investigates violations of the National Labor Relations Act. That 1935 law guarantees workers various organizing rights.
CMRJB Workers United recently filed a formal charge against Starbucks claiming the company retaliated against a worker for organizing at the Bon Air store. Starbucks representatives did not respond to a request for comment on the accusation.
In late July, just before their press conference, Heine Brothers’ workers and NCFO representatives also brought forward charges against the Louisville-based company. So far, they’ve filed five charges to the NLRB alleging illegal monitoring and retaliation against organizing activity.
They cite the sudden closure of the chain’s Douglass Loop location in late June without warning as an example. Organizing workers said the store was a hotbed of union support.
Heine Brothers’ has denied claims of wrongdoing.
“It is not unusual for employees and the unions backing them to file labor charges as part of an organizing campaign. The allegations are untrue and we intend to defend the Company’s legal rights,” spokesperson Glick said in a written statement.
He also said the company had already decided to leave the Douglass Loop location last year but was seeking a new tenant. On the day of the closure, the local company Ten20 Craft Brewery announced it was planning to expand into the space this fall.
Conflict about potential labor law violations has led some organizing workers to say it demonstrates the need for workers to form a union and secure legal protections.
As a full-time Starbucks employee, Houvenagle said a unionized workplace is important for employees across all industries, regardless of tenure.
“Even if you're only here for like, six months, or like a few weeks, being in a union protects you from the boss. It protects you from management,” Houvenagle said. “Why is that a benefit you'd want to deny people because it's a short-term job?”
Ariana Levinson, a University of Louisville professor who teaches labor law and employment law and former union attorney, said the work doesn’t stop with the union election. Afterward, getting buy-in from enough workers is crucial for organizing efforts to achieve change.
“That's the thing that's happening now and will be happening at a lot of these places, is to follow whether or not they will be successful in contract negotiations,” she said.
An organized future
On the day baristas at the Clarksville Starbucks were scheduled to learn their election results last month, a group of employees at the unionized East End store on Factory Lane visited across the Ohio River to show their support.
Louisville-area Starbucks workers have connected with each other during their organizing efforts through Discord, an online messaging platform. Members from the three stores that have publicly sought unions are part of a “Kentuckiana” group, Houvenagle said.
But on the afternoon of the Clarksville results, workers showed in-person solidarity among the chain’s first unionized Kentucky and Indiana employees.
Anna Lane is a barista who said she joined the Clarksville Starbucks shortly before the election began, but has felt welcomed by the unionizing co-workers.
“Seeing the way the store has changed since I've been here, it's been really just amazing to see the unity between everyone that works here, that [have] been here together through all of this process,” Lane said.
Solidarity among workers also extends to those exploring new ways to manage coffee shops. The Old Louisville Coffee Co-op opened in June, with a business model that makes each employee an owner. The owners earn equal profits and have an equal say in company decisions.
Kristina Diggs is a worker at the co-op and a former manager at Heine Brothers’. She said she had grievances with how things worked at her past company, including a demanding schedule that she said damaged her work-life balance in exchange for inadequate pay.
She said the co-op, which raised over $10,000 on Kickstarter, has been positively received by people in and around Louisville.
“I think people are excited to see that there is another option and that we just aren’t at the hands of these corporations, that we have the power and the ability to create new, create our own,” Diggs said.
Corey Robison is another Old Louisville Coffee Co-op owner and former Heine Brothers’ manager. She said she’s supportive of the organizing effort taking place at the chain.
“I'm really proud of them for finally standing up for themselves. They've been working on this for a while,” Robison said.
Levinson, the law professor, said the organizing efforts by city baristas could have long-term effects by inspiring other groups of workers.
“Obviously today, you can easily disseminate information across the world. But there's also something to be said for disseminating information between neighbors, between people who meet up at an event,” Levinson said.
Despite company-worker conflict over organizing efforts, employees have said they’ve seen overall positive feedback from customers, other union workers, and the community at large.
“I've met a lot of different people from different unions that come out to show their support. The town has a lot of love for unionism. It's very heartening to see that it still exists somewhere in America,” Hayth said.
Hayth said they’re confident the unionizing Heine Brothers’ workers will win an election, which could begin as early as August. They said the hope is for it to lead other service industry workers in Louisville to join the organizing movement.
If so, union-made coffee could be local businesses' wake-up call.
Heine Brothers is a sponsor of Louisville Public Media.