Workers at Darwin’s Ltd., a Cambridge cafe with four locations, are forming a union. On Wednesday, September 15, the Darwin’s United Organizing Committee sent a letter to management informing them of their intent to form a union. In the letter, the organizing committee requested that management voluntarily recognize the union through a card check procedure and participate in good-faith contract negotiations. A majority of Darwin’s roughly 40 workers have already signed union cards, signaling their support for the organizing effort.
“A partnership among us will strengthen the business while better supporting the staff — for it is through collaboration, not proclamation, that we excel,” stated the letter. The organizing committee also wrote that the cafe’s stated image of itself — one of community and consciously sourced goods, according to the letter — should “align itself with the action of supporting the foundation of the business: the workers.”
Steven Darwin, the cafe’s owner, tells Eater that “Darwin’s Ltd. values the many contributions of its employees. We respect their right to consider union representation. We look forward to engaging with all of our employees on this topic.” Darwin did not indicate if management plans to voluntarily recognize the union.
Annina Kennedy-Yoon works as a Darwin’s barista and is part of the organizing committee. She tells Eater that the workers at Darwin’s decided to unionize because they recognize that they have the right to bargain for better working conditions. “The best working relationships are the ones where workers have a say in how things are run. We don’t have any specific demands, we just want an equal say and to feel included in our relationships with our employers.”
Kennedy-Yoon expressed a number of frustrations with the industry, especially with how workers have been treated by the general public throughout the pandemic. “It’s been startling to see how some people don’t treat service workers with respect, or as humans at all,” she says. “I got into a bad place where I felt as though the people I was serving didn’t respect my labor. I was coming in every day, making food, making coffee, so they could live a normal life, or close to it.”
Eleanor McCartney, who works as a shift manager at Darwin’s and is a member of the organizing committee, says that the pandemic was a contributing factor in deciding to unionize. “A lot of issues in the industry were exposed, and exacerbated, by the pandemic,” she says. “This work has been made harder, more frustrating, and more exhausting by COVID. We’re looking to stand together and have the ability to go to work and not feel burned out by a single day, or when we have to go to work for five consecutive days.”
Members of the Darwin’s organizing committee, which is represented by the New England Joint Board Unite Here union, tell Eater they found inspiration in the recent successful organizing effort at Pavement Coffeehouse in Boston and the ongoing organizing efforts at Starbucks in Buffalo. Mary Lulloff works as a barista at Darwin’s and is a member of the organizing committee; she formerly worked at Pavement. She left around the time the Pavement Coffee Organizing Committee went public with its organizing effort and says she knew she wanted to help do a similar thing at Darwin’s when she was hired. Lulloff hopes Darwin’s management follows the example set by Pavement’s and voluntarily recognizes the union.
Emma Delaney, a union representative for the Darwin’s organizing committee who works with Unite Here, tells Eater that the organizing efforts at Pavement and Starbucks empowered the workers at Darwin’s to join the coffee industry’s labor movement. “These are not random organizing efforts independent of one another. This is a movement. Darwin’s is fighting to become the second independent unionized coffee shop in Massachusetts, and all of us at the New England Joint Board Unite Here are proud to be representing them in their fundamental right to organize as workers.”
“It’s been inspiring,” says Kennedy-Yoon, “to have these frustrations, and then to see a coffee shop organizing in front of my eyes, in my own neighborhood, and think about what can be actively changed [about this industry].”
If management doesn’t voluntarily recognize the union, the Darwin’s organizing committee would have to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which would then conduct a vote among workers. (When management doesn’t voluntarily recognize a union, it may be betting that it can wage an effective anti-union campaign, which is what happened recently at an Amazon facility in Alabama.)
Inequity and abuse are rampant in the food service industry, and non-union workers — who make up the vast majority of the industry’s workforce — have little or no recourse. For many food service workers, financial insecurity is the norm: Most businesses in the industry don’t offer health insurance; the tip credit, which allows operators to pay servers and bartenders a subminimum wage as long as they make up the difference in tips (which have a legacy in slavery), is alive and well in Massachusetts; and undocumented workers, who represent a large portion of the industry, are not eligible for unemployment benefits. If more food service workers were unionized, fewer food service workers would have to suffer under such difficult and frequently inhumane working conditions.
Workers in the food service industry have one of the lowest rates of union representation in the nation. The median weekly earnings of food service workers who belong to a union are roughly $90 more per week than nonunion workers nationally. That’s a difference of at least $4,600 annually, which can be the difference between making rent or not.
Like the actions of workers at Pavement before them, the actions of workers at Darwin’s could be a guide for others to follow as food service workers continue to recognize their collective bargaining power.