Here’s a story from my neck of the woods (Greater Boston) that may have broader implications for the future of the labor market and the labor movement. In essence, it’s about what happened after baristas at a small independent chain of coffeehouses opted to unionize and then attempted to pressure the owners towards signing a first collective bargaining agreement.
Many readers are likely aware of the active, national campaign to unionize individual Starbucks locations in the U.S. In the Boston area, labor activists have been organizing not only local Starbucks stores, but also independent coffeehouses, which typically are staffed by younger, educated workers whose political views and financial needs are receptive to union appeals.
The Darwin’s story, briefly
Until recently, Darwin’s was an independent, family-owned chain of four coffeehouses in Cambridge, MA, in business for some 30 years. In 2021, baristas at all four locations voted to unionize. Subsequent labor negotiations proved to be contentious, and they apparently took their toll on the two co-owners. As reported by Diti Kohli for the Boston Globe (link here), in October 2022, owners Steven and Isabel Darwin:
…said that they will close their flagship cafe on Mt. Auburn Street by Nov. 22 due to “workload and personal health concerns.” The move inspired protests from unionized employees, who then picketed at Cambridge City Hall and the owners’ home. There, they demanded the owners guarantee employment to the workers displaced by the closure, raise wages to $24 per hour, and improve health care and the policy on paid time off.
In November, the Darwins decided that it was time to call it quits. They announced that they would be closing the remaining stores and retiring from the business. Co-owner Isabel Darwin told the Globe that “‘this protest march is what has resulted in the acceleration of our decision’ to step away and close the business. She noted the stores already offer a $14.25 [Massachusetts] minimum wage and other employee benefits like two free meals per shift and discounts on beer and wine.”
In December, Darwin’s closed all of its locations. And with that closing, several dozen jobs disappeared.
Living wages in Greater Boston
There are two “please walk in my shoes” perspectives that deserve our understanding, and both are important:
The first perspective recognizes the challenges facing a large cohort of young, educated folks with backgrounds outside of STEM fields, seeking viable employment in expensive areas to live, and often while carrying student loan debt. In the comments sections of Globe news articles on the Darwin’s situation, folks were quick to condemn and ridicule the union demands of $24/hour wages and beefed-up medical coverage and benefits. But when stacked against the cost of living in this area, $24/hour doesn’t go very far — not when average rents for a Boston studio apartment run between $2,000-2,200.
The second perspective recognizes the challenges facing small business owners in highly competitive retail environments, many of whom have sunk heart, soul, and personal savings into keeping their businesses afloat during the pandemic. While Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz earns significant compensation and probably won’t be found working on the store floor, the owners of indie shops are earning much less and may well be opening and closing their stores five days a week (if not more). The indie owners face tight profit margins in this business. And if they increase their prices too sharply, customers may vote with their feet — no small concern in this inflationary economy.
This raises a hard dilemma that I don’t pretend to know how to resolve, i.e., entry-level job categories that a generation or two ago were popular with younger high school and college students, now also being filled by folks who need that living wage, health insurance, and the like. They are working in retail settings originally built on a premise that most employees would be moving on to something more lucrative as skills, experience, and education grow.
Not the future of the labor movement
I believe that rebuilding the labor movement is an important part of the answer towards growing workers’ wages and benefits. It’s not by accident that the widening wealth gap in the U.S. has coincided with the decline in the percentage of workers who are unionized. In the case of Darwin’s, however, labor demands — including personalizing the dispute by protesting at the owners’ residence — may well have pushed the owners to decide it’s not worth the stress and hassle of continuing. This was not a corporate decision, it was a very personal one.
The result here is a small tragedy: Lots of folks understandably wanting better compensation and benefits suddenly out of jobs, and two long-time small business owners closing up shop because it likely broke their spirits to walk out their door and face angry protesters demanding compensation their business wasn’t wealthy enough to provide.
This scenario cannot be the future of the labor movement.
Would you like a union with that Happy Meal?
But maybe there’s another approach for organized labor that lifts more boats.
The specter of people working for low wages in the retail food and beverage industry is hardly a new one. In particular, if you opt for a fast food lunch at McDonald’s, Burger King, or similar spot, then you’re likely to be served by a non-union worker who started at something close to the minimum wage. Or maybe you prefer a regular iced coffee at Dunkin’ over the higher-priced brew at Starbucks. There, too, your server may well be earning around the minimum wage.
These jobs, too, once were the traditional province of younger people getting their starts in the job market. But here in Boston (and I presume other parts of the country), if you grab a burger or coffee at these establishments, you’ll often find folks of all ages behind the counter, and they appear to be very diverse in social class as well.
Indeed, what if some of the same folks who might be given to organizing unions at indie coffeehouses instead got jobs at national fast-food chain establishments and tried to do the same there? In terms of giving voice to those who would benefit over the long haul — including people whose present vocational options and income potential may be more limited — the long-term, positive impacts could be substantial.
Bearing witness to the decline of the Great American Jobs Machine
This is not the first time I’ve seen the retail sector become a backup source of jobs when more lucrative opportunities weren’t available.
In 1981, I graduated from Valparaiso University in Indiana with a bachelor’s degree and a political science major. My plan was to work for a year, live at home with my parents in northwest Indiana, and file my applications to law schools.
At the time, the nation was in a deep recession. Locally, the labor market was in especially bad shape, thanks largely to the sharp drop of available jobs in the steel mills. During the region’s 20th century boom, young men could graduate from high school and secure a unionized job in the steel mills, with wages and benefits sufficient to raise a family. By the early 1980s, those jobs were fast disappearing.
In my case, after several months of unsuccessful hunting for a full-time job befitting (in my mind) a college graduate, I contacted the local drug store chain I had worked for as a retail stock clerk during college summers and asked if they needed help. Fortunately they were opening a new store in the area, and they took me on. I would spend the next year working there, unloading trucks, stocking shelves, checking inventories, and assisting customers.
Among my memories of that year were how some of the women employees at the drug store, earning wages similar to mine, became primary family breadwinners after their husbands had lost their jobs in the steel mills. It was a big sign that the Great American Jobs Machine, which produced so many good paying jobs during the nation’s industrial heyday, was in a state of decline. And the jobs that replaced them tended to be low-paid retail positions in strip malls.
Those low-paid retail positions have endured as a staple of the labor market, and all too many people rely on them to cover their living expenses and often to raise families. The extent to which labor unions can help to change that dynamic remains a question mark, but we know that before the industrial and manufacturing sectors became heavily unionized, low-paying jobs with scant benefits were the norm. If organized labor is to be a similar game changer for workers in the retail sector, it is likely to be at places like McDonald’s, Walmart, and Amazon, rather than at indie coffeehouses like Darwin’s.
Parts of this post were drawn from extended comments that I left on online news articles and a handful of past blog articles.