Employees at the Little Dog Coffee Shop in Brunswick know that while it is a victory to win a union election, securing a first contract is a whole new battle.
While they draw inspiration from the hundreds of Starbucks locations across the country that unionized over the past two years, they also know that none of those workers have yet to sign a contract. Billionaire Howard Schultz — Starbucks founder and outgoing CEO who was recently accused in a congressional hearing of running “the most aggressive and illegal union-busting campaign in the modern history of our country” — has refused to negotiate with his workers.
But Little Dog baristas think they may have a secret weapon to help them build the power of their new union and win a fair contract: the community.
“Everyone who works at Little Dog is a member of this community,” union organizer Chris Cushing said, adding that he doesn’t think the coffee shop’s new owner Larry Flaherty “quite understands the power that comes from community solidarity.”
The employees, who voted to unionize last fall, say Flaherty is not negotiating in good faith. On May 7, the workers held a one-day strike to call attention to three unfair labor practices complaints they recently filed with the National Labor Relations Board that alleges that Flaherty made unilateral changes, including cutting staff hours, without bargaining with the union.
A new union’s chances of negotiating a first contract within one year are less than 50%. Organizers say that is because it is a common tactic for employers to stall in order to sow doubt that the union is effective in the hopes that workers will abandon their efforts.
Cushing said Flaherty, who bought the cafe last summer, has “a very similar strategy to Howard Schultz.” But there’s one big difference. “Whereas people go to Starbucks for a quick grab-and-go on their way to work, we have people that are regulars that we consider friends,” he said. “When it comes time for not crossing a picket line, we have the community’s backing.”
Bargaining for the common good
Building community support has been a goal of Little Dog workers since they voted unanimously in November to unionize with Workers United, which also represents Starbucks baristas. Instead of first seeking wage and benefit improvements, the 10-member bargaining unit made up of mostly part-time employees has instead introduced a package of proposals they think will benefit the cafe and community.
They want basic food safety training and better maintenance of equipment. Employees say the cafe’s air conditioner, dish sanitizing machine, espresso machine and drip coffee maker aren’t working properly, compromising safety and leading to items being taken off the menu.
Flaherty — who owns the Met Coffee House chain, with one location in Freeport and two in North Conway, New Hampshire — refuted in other media reports the workers’ claim that he isn’t bargaining in good faith. He did not respond to Beacon’s request for comment.
“A lot of our workers are younger workers, 25 to 16 years old, who genuinely want to make a change in the world and want to keep Little Dog as original as possible,” said Sophie Creamer, an employee and organizer.
Creamer said the goal is to have a fully stocked and staffed coffee shop heading into the busy summer months.
Among labor organizers, it’s called “bargaining for the common good,” which is a strategy to build community support for unions and workers. For example, nurses, including Maine’s largest nursing union, are currently fighting nationwide to require safe nurse-to-patient ratios in hospitals.
It’s also been employed by teachers’ unions across the country that have fought for more school funding and resources for their students. Before teachers in West Virginia started their statewide strike in 2018, they built community buy-in by meeting with parents and soliciting their advice. They were able to avoid placing hardships on families that could have weakened public support by getting volunteers to prepare lunches for students.
In turn, residents can develop an interest in a union’s accomplishments and come to understand that collective bargaining typically boosts workers’ wages in the community and fosters other improvements that non-unionized workers can also benefit from.
“We had people from the community coming up to talk to us on the picket line asking us how they could support us,” Cushing said. “We had high school students asking about the union and why it’s important. Like, that is everything our organizers live for.”
Little Dog employees have been attempting to build community support for their negotiations by sharing their stories and working conditions on social media. Last fall, they also began organizing “sip-ins” to educate customers about the negotiations. This involved supporters ordering coffee with pro-union slogans in place of their names, wearing buttons, posting solidarity messages on the community board, and sharing pictures on social media.
Workers say those efforts produced a noticeable impact during their May 7 strike.
“Our neighboring business Fleet Feet made it very clear they supported us and allowed us to use their bathroom throughout the day. A pal walked back to her workplace and ordered pizza that we all shared for lunch,” said Jess Czarnecki, a union organizer.
Czarnecki said both Assistant Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry (D-Cumberland) and Rep. Dan Ankeles (D-Brunswick) stopped by to show solidarity. Czarnecki added, “A worker from the pet supply store The Animal House across the street dropped off a case of water. We had never spoken to him before but he was so nice and encouraging.”
Other community members saw their strike as a sign of hope.
“A few older folks came over and said, ‘I remember when unions were all over the place but they sort of fell off. I’m so glad that someone is taking it back up,’” Creamer added.
Building strike-ready unions
Within just five months of unionizing, workers at Little Dog have already exercised the most powerful leverage available to an organized working class: the strike.
But it’s a muscle that needs to be exercised, and the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, “right to work” laws in more than half the U.S. and no-strike clauses embedded in labor contracts and statute have allowed that muscle to atrophy over decades.
For organizers who want to revive the labor movement, building strike-ready unions that can win major victories for workers is a top priority, and their success or failure depends greatly on community support.
The Maine Democratic Socialists of America are trying to build strike-ready unions by recruiting community members to participate in sip-ins in Brunswick and Biddeford, the site of Maine’s only remaining unionized Starbucks. (A location in Portland’s Old Port was closed after a successful union vote last year.)
They have also established strike funds to support workers during work stoppages. It’s one part of a nationwide campaign with the United Auto Workers to build support for the 340,000 Teamsters at UPS who will be fighting for better pay and treatment on the job when their contract expires this summer. If the Teamsters walk off the job, it would be the largest strike in American history.
“Unions are strike-ready when they have a supermajority of members willing to strike. That comes from workers understanding the stakes and feeling empowered to walk off the job. It also comes from having community support,” said Wil Thieme, an organizer with Maine DSA. “Workers don’t fade from existence when their shifts end. Each worker represents a whole network of relationships and support which extends far beyond the workplace. Good union organizing works to activate these networks and build unbreakable bonds within the union and its community.”
For now, it’s unclear when negotiations will continue at Little Dog Coffee Shop. Workers say they are not planning any additional strikes and want to continue serving the community.
For the baristas there — many of whom have never had a union job or experienced collective power in the workplace — they say it is exciting to be part of a movement bigger than their own building.
“Union jobs don’t exist, inherently. People are realizing that creating unionized workplaces is the thing to do now,” Cushing said. “I think Starbucks workers and workers like us are showing that the majority of wage labor these days comes from service and care work. That’s why organizing these places is so critical.”