This machine needs us but doesn’t care about us

I don't think we truly understand how far this can go until we give it time

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Two weeks ago yesterday Keith Dennis put in his notice at work. Like many of his colleagues, the barista at Pavement Coffeehouse, a popular chain with eight stores around the Boston area, had become disillusioned and burnt out by the conditions he was working under, particularly over the course of the last year. Soon after his co-worker Emma Delaney called him with a proposition. What do you think about organizing a union?

He told her he was leaving soon, but said he’d do whatever he could to help. About a week and a half later the staff of around eighty had officially declared their intent to unionize. Almost immediately owner Larry Margulies said he would recognize the effort. And just like that drive to become the first unionized independent cafe in Massachusetts was underway, with the workers signing on with the New England Joint Board UNITE HERE.

“We’re sick of being exploited,” Delaney told Tori Bedford at WGBH, who reported on the effort first, “and I think the fact that we get the opportunity to be a blueprint is a huge driving force behind this.”

“I thought the process would take months,” Dennis told me. “I didn’t think it would happen so quickly. Today was my last shift, but I’m honored to be part of this, to witness something really changing.”

That impulse to pack up and leave when unhappy is all too common in the service industry, said Mitch Fallon of UNITE HERE. “It's the status quo of the at-will employment market. If you don’t like your job you quit and move on to something else.”

“Somebody in management said if so and so doesn’t like this one they should just find another job,” Jude Hanley, another cafe worker told me. “Yes, there are a million different coffee shops any of us could work at, but at the end of the day it’s not our reputation on the line. It’s Pavement’s reputation.”

Certainly many service industry workers don’t go into the field thinking of it as a long term career. That’s always been part of the problem when it comes to organizing from within. For some it’s a job you take during school, or in a transitional period between “more serious” employment, and thus turnover rate can be an issue for owners. But why is that really? Is it because all service industry workers are aimless and irresponsible? A lot of owners might tell you that, but it’s simply not the case. Instead it’s a matter of employees putting back into their jobs the respect that they receive from the top down. Plenty of people do actually like the work, and would be happy to maintain a steady and stable job where they don’t feel taken advantage of as a matter of course.

It doesn’t have to be this way, Fallon said. If someone likes their job — and the three Pavement workers I spoke to indeed said that aside from concerns that could be addressed by management, they do largely enjoy their work and the sense of community and camaraderie among their customers and co-workers —  they should be able to improve conditions through a dialogue about solutions with management.

“Now the only option you have is to quit and hope that that is making a stand that the employer listens to,” Fallon said. “But they never do.”

“Forming a union is a great way to get long term employees who are dedicated to the craft of what they do. I think that’s an empowering, inspirational thing.”

The list of demands the group expects to bring to management soon are a catalogue of familiar disappointing conditions common across the service industry. Pay is at the top of course. Most Pavement employees currently make the Massachusetts minimum wage of $13.50 an hour, and are given 25 cent raises after a review period of six months. (They were provided no hazard pay during the pandemic.) That’s nowhere near enough to live on anywhere in the Boston metro area. Other issues include management seeming to overlook workers of color, women, and LGBT employees at the stores while giving deference to men, even those not in supervisory positions, Hanley said. On top of that they say they work with faulty equipment that can end up being dangerous. (The toaster at his store regularly catches fire, and he burned himself very badly on a broken espresso machine Dennis said.)

At the bottom of it all, their discontent comes from a lack of communication, and the feeling that they are not being listened to by bosses.

“Myself and a lot of other people have felt frustrated with some of the decisions about Covid safety in particular,” Kit Malmberg, who’s worked at the Newbury Street location for about two years told me. “And the way that upper management doesn't include us in the conversation about a lot of things.”

“It’s no secret that a lot of food workers in general feel like they are seen but not heard by upper management, and have us feeling just like cogs,” Dennis said.

Much like in many other fields, the pressure cooker conditions of the pandemic has only forced all of these long lingering issues to the forefront.

“It’s a feeling of being asked to do so much with no real say or no reason to feel we are being compensated for the extra workload,” Dennis said.

“I think the pandemic really gave industry workers a footing to stand on and get started,” Hanley went on. “People were patting industry workers on the back, saying we’re ‘essential’ and that they couldn’t function without us. Now that things are going back to normal, it’s like, ok, pay us, and support us as if we’re actually essential workers. Regardless of a pandemic or not. In the heat of it all we were still serving you. Doing something you’re not willing to do. The pandemic, as shitty as it was, it’s an opportunity for industry workers, in cafes, bartenders, the industry as a whole, to be like: You wanted us to prove our importance to you? We have. Now let’s keep that going.”

“Service workers have had such a unique experience during the pandemic,” Dennis added. And it’s not been a good one.

“Every service worker has had the uniquely disheartening experience of understanding that this machine needs us but doesn’t care about us. Everybody who’s worked from home, they think the pandemic has been bad because they've been at home the whole time. And cabin fever is a real thing I totally understand. But the experience that we've had has been so different. Our humanity has been taken away. Not only are we seen but not heard by management, but so many times by the people we are serving we are seen and not heard. Now that so many people are seeing service workers stand up and say this needs to be changed, I think it’s really bringing to light, across the board for service workers everywhere, what is going on. I don't think we truly understand how far this can go until we give it time.”

Since the news broke earlier this week, they’ve gotten numerous calls from other industry workers asking for help on getting their own unionization efforts underway.

“That was within an hour of us going public about it. It’s only picked up since. I don’t expect it to slow down,” Hanley said.

“It’s really beautiful to see how much push there has been for respect for workers in the service industry,” Malmberg said. “Seeing a lot of what’s been going on in the fast food industry was something that was really inspiring for me personally. A lot of pushback against unfair treatment. It feels like we’re at the crux of something big.”

I’m from Brighton via Quincy, Dennis added. “I know so many people around here who’ve said if Pavement unionizes that they’re never going back to Dunkies again. That’s a big deal!”

That’s not an overstatement. Here’s hoping that if there’s one thing that’s more infectious than coffee brand loyalty it’s solidarity.

For more recent labor stories from Hell World please see this piece by Em Cassel on why restaurant workers are actually leaving the industry of late; this one about a beloved record store chain in New Hampshire abruptly firing its entire staff in one location, possibly because of impending labor organizing efforts among workers; this one about how not having had to commute over the past year has improved people’s’ lives; this one by Bill Shaner on a nurses strike in Worcester, MA; this one about how service workers can no longer afford to live in the cities they work in; and more from earlier in the pandemic here or here or or here or here or here.

Read this excerpt from this piece in Commonweal. That is indeed a hell of a paragraph as the fella says.

Oh also check this dog shit out while you’re here from this piece in the NYT this week.

Time to ditch those sad drunk fatties to better curate your friend experience everyone!

I don’t know man aside from that nonsense above I appreciate and miss my half-ass see you around from time to time friends. Everyone we like doesn't have to be someone who’d die for us or whatever. To me a good type of guy is the guy who you see out and think “I gotta hang out with him more,” then you never do, but you also think that again every time after.

I know I usually only deliver bad news in here but here’s a palate cleanser of something that’s just delightful.

Unless you think about how Farley died way too young, then I guess it’s depressing again. Never mind.

Watch this from our pals Free Throw. It features the facades of two of my home away from homes, The Sinclair, and the dearly departed Great Scott, which I wrote about in here and in the piece mentioned in the tweet below.