ITHACA, N.Y.—Baristas at Gimme! Coffee made history in the labor movement when, in 2017, they formed the first barista union ever in the U.S.. The development would foreshadow a wave of workers unionizing locations of the corporate coffee shop chain Starbucks. But in just under four years from its formation, the Gimme Barista Union was decertified by its bargaining unit in a controversial March 2021 vote. 

That vote took place just a year after COVID-19 shuttered the movements of normal society in March 2020. Gimme! Coffee workers had been laid off then, and the coffee company was trying to find its footing as a to-go service in the interim period before relative normalcy returned.

At this time, a block of workers within the union were sick of interpersonal politics which they felt were governing the direction of the union. Conversely, the union’s biggest supporters were fighting to keep their group together under the pressures they felt Gimme! Coffee was ratcheting up to bust their union. 

By March 2021, when the decertification vote was conducted, some union baristas had returned to work, many left their jobs altogether and some had remained on a waitlist that Gimme! Coffee and the barista union had created as a part of pandemic-era recall rights.

In the decertification vote, Gimme! Coffee challenged the votes of the 10 baristas on the waitlist. The company’s argument for the challenge: these workers had been asked if they wanted to return to work numerous times, didn’t seem to intend to, and no longer had a “reasonable expectation to return to work.”

Workers United, the Gimme Barista Union’s parent union, appealed the challenge, arguing that it flew in the face of the recall rights that the union and Gimme! Coffee had agreed to under contract. That appeal was denied by a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency responsible for enforcing U.S. labor law as well as investigating and adjudicating labor disputes. Workers United has kicked the appeal up to the NLRB’s Washington Office. This appeal will decide the future of the Gimme Barista Union. 

The path that led the union to that point — where a decertification vote was happening in the first place — is complicated.

It’s a path marred with interpersonal conflict among union baristas, twisted by the incredible level of stress and uncertainty brought into the workplace by the COVID-19 pandemic, and further disheveled by a high rate of turnover within the company.

Yet, despite the drama that subsumed its barista union, Gimme! Coffee seems to have realigned its name with the spirit of worker empowerment. The company announced its transition into a worker-owned co-op in July 2022, giving all its employees the opportunity to buy into the business at a realistic cost and share in its profits, as well as some scope of decision-making powers, and open access to Gimme! Coffee’s financials. 

The co-op transition, and the decertification of the union place the iconic Ithaca coffee company at a unique intersection in a time when the U.S. is seeing a surge of energy go into labor organizing after decades of decline in union membership. 

How did things get to this point?

The formation of the Gimme Barista Union

It was first a pattern of promises being made and going unfulfilled, Caleb Harrington says, that motivated him and some of his coworkers to organize the Gimme Barista Union.

Harrington said that when he started off as a barista at Gimme, he was promised a small wage increase after he hit three months on the job. It was a verbal promise, not written down anywhere, and it never materialized. 

This sort of thing was not new to Harrington. It had happened at other coffee shops he had worked at before and, overall, is the type of injustice widespread in the service industry.

Though Gimme, Harrington thought, would be different. He had moved from Corning to Ithaca to work for the company in 2016. It had a great reputation in the coffee industry. It was supposed to be better than many jobs in the service industry, but it wasn’t long before Harrington saw the same issues he’d seen in previous workplaces crop up.

Different locations and different shifts brought in different tips. Busy mornings at Gimme’s State Street or Cayuga Street locations could rake in close to $25 an hour when tips were factored in. At Gimme’s Gates Hall location on Cornell University’s campus, that number was more like $13, Harrington said, adding that he had been given the expectation to make around $19 an hour with tips at the Cornell campus location.

Shifts were scheduled by in-store managers, and the suspicion that favoritism played into who got the best shifts was difficult to tamp down. Baristas were stuck competing against one another for the best shifts at the best stores.

Almost all service jobs are “at will employment” in New York, meaning workers can be fired at management’s discretion. Harrington said he witnessed inconsistent standards over firings, and then inconsistent leniencies applied when someone screwed up.

He vividly remembers a barista slicing open a finger while attempting to catch a falling ceramic mug. This coworker of his had to be driven to the hospital but, before being released from work to get medical attention, a floor manager at Gimme tried to get the injured person to cover it up with a Band-Aid and finish their shift.

The little things began to pile up, but the company culture was unique. The coffee shops, Harrington felt, were special.

“I liked Gimme so much that I wanted to see these problems solved,” he said.

Things could be different. They could get better, he thought.

Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

And so, Harrington, along with other co-workers, approached the Tompkins County Workers Center, where they were put in touch with Worker’s United, and in June 2017 the baristas voted 16 to 1 to unionize. Harrington claims he was the only one who voted against, mostly just for fun.

At the time of the union’s formation, Gimme! Coffee founder Kevin Cuddeback was working as CEO. During the organizing process, he was described as remaining neutral, earning him some praise from Pete Meyers, coordinator of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center (TCWC).

In February 2018, the union would ratify its first contract with management, instituting wage increases; a paid sick day program; monthly meetings between labor and management; an arbitration and grievance procedure to resolve workplace problems for union members; and a “just cause” clause to create a standard that needed to be followed if management sought to fire or discipline baristas.

The initial contract was a major win. The agreement struck between Cuddeback and the union marked a big improvement in working conditions at Gimme! Coffee. However, as the union worked to develop and advance its agenda at the company, Cuddeback would become a lightning rod as he was marked as an obstacle to progress. Those initial days of joy would soon give way to butting heads.

The fight to get rid of tips

After the initial contract negotiation, the goal of the union was to remove tipping as a major component of barista wages, and raise the hourly rate of pay. In an April 2019 Barista Union FaceBook post, the union described the initial contract as “whatever Gimme was willing to give us.” 

Negotiations for increased wages started in December 2019. The union proposed that tipping be removed, that every barista start at $19.24 an hour, and that they receive a 2.5% raise every six months after baristas received a bar certification. The response from management was to reject that proposal, and counter with a $1 per hour raise for baristas at the Gimme location in Cayuga Heights, which received fewer tips than the Cayuga and State Street stores.

The barista union responded to the rejection of the proposal with the request to access the company’s finances, asking for Cuddeback to prove the wages they proposed were outside of Gimme! Coffee’s ability to pay its baristas. 

The disparity in barista income between stores wasn’t fair, the union felt, and their craft and their customer service deserved to be compensated equally, no matter the shift or the store a barista worked at.

So the union’s tenor changed. They were going to play hardball, and they were willing to critique management and Cuddeback openly when they felt that negotiations were not being done fairly. They were going to share the back-and-forth between the union and management with the community, hand out leaflets, and demonstrate. 

Which is what they did when negotiations gridlocked in the late spring of 2019. It was around this time that the monthly meetings between the union and management broke down. 

At the same time, some baristas were growing tired of the union. This group, more sympathetic to collaborating with management, found the union’s wage proposal completely unrealistic, and the conversations with management unproductive. And they thought that was the union’s fault.

The barista union stood steadfast, though.

For Sam Mason, one of the original organizers of the union along with Harrington, the frame of mind that she felt union members needed to maintain was “think of managers as your managers.” 

“It’s not personal. It’s structural,” she said, “We have to use our power as workers to demand better conditions. They will never want us to have better conditions.”

That hardline, which some baristas criticized the union for leaning on too much, was and is essential in Mason’s view to prevent workers from being taken advantage of. But the divide was created in the union. Doubt was sown.

Cracks begin to show

On the condition of remaining anonymous, baristas who worked at Gimme during this time describe the work environment in the store as tense. Though specific interactions don’t exactly stand out in their recollections. Forced conversations about the union’s agenda, why they should support, why it was unrealistic, why Cuddeback needed to open the company’s finances if he was going to justify the counterproposal to the union’s original proposal — an air of interpersonal politics had firmly developed in the stilted differences everyone felt about how the union should move forward. 

Adding to the awkward social dynamic was the position Gimme! Coffee’s middle management was stuck in.

Floor managers were never included in the Gimme Barista Union, despite having quality and customer service oversight at the locations, and being baristas themselves when the need arose. The union didn’t include a myriad of other positions in the company either, like bakers or roasters.

Not having worked to include the middle layer of management in the barista union would become a lasting regret for Harrington. If they weren’t silent supporters (since speaking up could jeopardize their livelihood) they were perceived as a part of the structure that worked against the barista union.

“We failed in our union push to get our managers in on the union. Because they were still managers, they were on the company side,” Harrington said.

Out of the baristas at Gimme! Coffee, Susie Shelton developed one of the biggest grudges with the union. Shelton, whose pronouns are they/them, was the barista that ultimately filed the decertification petition. They said that dealing with the wage inequality between stores was an important issue that deserved attention, but in their view, the union relied on and developed a combative dynamic with management in order to strengthen its position. 

“It had gotten to a point where it was like, ‘In order for this union to exist, you have to believe that Gimme! Coffee is a bad company.’ You have to be willing to fight your managers in the workplace constantly,” said Shelton. 

And this tension became coupled with turnover.

Harrington himself would end up leaving in June 2019. Though he saw the interpersonal strain growing in the workplace at Gimme, Harrington said his departure was not caused by a disbelief in the union. He wanted to move up in his career, to open and run his own cafe, which he’s doing now with Nothing Nowhere in Ithaca. 

The shifting staff, which service jobs are notorious for, would move the ground beneath the barista union. The near-unanimous vote that ratified the union, Mason said, “that changed with turnover.”

She continued, “That’s what’s so hard about this industry. The turnover is just so constant. […] We were trying to build this union culture that workers would just step into.”

Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

As turnover eroded the block of baristas that were loyal to the union’s mission, it also consolidated leadership among those who stayed. That progress would appear natural, but Shelton said that they were annoyed with how a limited group of people had a “hold over what that narrative of what the union was supposed to be.”

One barista, speaking anonymously, derided the leadership of the union as a “high school clique.”

These criticisms are regarded as unfair by Mason and other union supporters. The regular meetings that the Gimme Barista Union held were, at least on the face of it, open to any barista working on the floor, giving a space for any of them to raise their issues about the workplace. However, workers that had turned away from the union’s agenda and attitudes did not feel interested or comfortable in going to these meetings anyway.

There was also an important piece to the puzzle missing for the union: it lacked bylaws and a charter outlining its values and rules. The result was a scattered approach to handling complaints internally. 

The case-by-case basis of dealing with conflicts among union members is why, in the view of former Gimme Barista Union Steward Ava Mailloux, baristas would have felt that the union leadership was cliquey. But Mailloux, Mason and others felt that the internal strife was all misdirected energy that was “counter revolutionary.”

In the view of many of the baristas, this oversight of not having bylaws or a charter could have been avoided with more direction from their parent union, Workers United, early on in the union’s development. 

Mason emphasized that, in her view, Workers United had always remained very accessible, and was particularly helpful when it came to legal matters, but did not have a consistent union representative to work with on internal issues. Gimme! Coffee is a small company, and its baristas were just a small number of employees under Workers United’s umbrella. Workers United also doesn’t have an office in Ithaca due to the city’s relatively small size.

“They came in and helped us get a union in place and helped us through the negotiations process,” said Mason. “But I would say that they did not actually help us develop our own capacity as organizers.”

And, in Mason’s view, that was almost better in some cases. The Gimme Barista Union took on a more radical tilt than she felt Workers United wouldn’t openly endorse. The relationship between employee and employer is an inherently exploitative relationship, Mason and Mailloux argued. The idea of a good or bad employer doesn’t matter. Employer’s power comes from labor, and labor needs to unite under a larger common interest to prevent itself from being exploited. The relationship means that employers doing this is inevitable. It’s up to the workers to stop this from happening.

These are the ideological underpinnings of the Barista Gimme Union and, for its supporters, there doesn’t seem to be a stronger justification for these views and the approaches it engendered than in the case of Rebecca Lespier’s grievances with Gimme! Coffee.

Rebecca Lespier

Lespier was a Gimme! Coffee barista and union member that was demoted from the position of lead barista after making some posts to her personal Instagram account, venting her frustrations about race-related experiences in April 2019.

Lespier’s post focused on the sentiment that “white/thin/cis pretty” women have their problems taken more seriously compared to people of color. Lespier, a Black woman, wrote, “Sorry we don’t fit your perfect damsel in distress mold. Sorry we can’t feed into your gross savior complex.”

Though she didn’t specify any individual, Lespier’s post was brought up to management at Gimme! Coffee by a coworker who took the statements personally, resulting in an investigation headed up by Gimme’s human resources department. The determination made by the company was that Lespier’s post constituted “bullying” and she was demoted from the Lead Barista position she had held since Jan. 2018.

Lespier filed a grievance, leading to arbitration. She sought out representation from an attorney from Workers United, but was dissatisfied with the arguments that the lawyer wanted to present. Supposedly, the lawyer wanted to remove blame from Lespier by arguing that she had not been supplied with a copy of the employee handbook when the bullying clause was added.

Instead, Mailloux along with local political and housing activist Genieve Rand — who now works as an organizer for Citizen Action! — crafted a legal argument around Gimme! Coffee’s HR investigation failing to understand the content and context of Lespier’s social media posts as criticism of a “racial and gender power structure.”

The arbitration wrapped up with closing arguments in Dec. 2019, but Gimme! Coffee would reach a settlement with Lespier at the end of Jan. 2020, reinstating her to the position of Lead Barista before the arbitration finished, and issuing backpay for the wages and hours she had lost.

The settlement, while reinstating Lespier, did not concede that her demotion was unfair. This determination was allowed to be played out in the arbitration process — an agreement that is unusual for a settlement. The arbitrator did end up siding with the company, deeming Gimme’s demotion of Lespier as fairly founded. 

Even still, the reinstatement of Lespier as a Lead Barista was ranked as a major win and show of strength for the Gimme Barista Union. 

While the arbitration had lasted for months, the Gimme Barista Union’s efforts to educate the community on Lespier’s grievance and build a campaign to pressure the company achieved what a “bureaucratic process” couldn’t, said Mason.

The decision to reinstate and pay back Lespier had come from the then-new Gimme! Coffee interim CEO Colleen Anunu, who replaced Kevin Cuddeback in Jan. 2020 after he had served 20 years in the role. Anunu, whose pronouns are they/them, was brought in as a “fresh perspective” to move the company forward. 

By this point, Cuddeback’s name was mud. Whether it was in mean spirit, or fair, it didn’t matter. He sat at the focal point of union criticism.

He had defended Lespier’s demotion and pushed for the matter to be settled by an arbitrator. This, plus the disagreement he had with the union’s wage restructuring proposals, constituted the two major conflicts that made him an enemy of progress for the union.

If the strained dynamic Cuddeback had with the union made him feel it was untenable for him to continue to lead the company, he did not say so. His stated reason for leaving in 2020 was to “finalize a move to the west coast” so his wife could be closer to family. 

Cuddeback declined a request for an interview with The Ithaca Voice, but in a statement said, “I’m thankful to have passed the torch to such a qualified team of coffee professionals. I’m certain they will work to improve the coffee quality and operational standards that have been the bedrock of our community support for the past 2 decades. Much love, I-town!”

But, after Lespier’s arbitration and at the time of Cuddeback’s departure, Gimme’s Director of Retail stepped down. Then its COO. A month and half later, COVID hit.

Speaking anonymously, one Gimme barista put it this way: “Colleen [Anunu] stepped on, and then was immediately handed this steaming pile of…”

“Interpersonal relations were completely dysfunctional,” said one Gimme barista.

Society was forced to shut down in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020, and the overwhelming majority of Gimme! Coffee workers were laid off. Stores and locations were quick to reopen coffee shops, but operated on skeleton crews. The pandemic’s challenging — potentially life-threatening — working conditions strained an already fomenting dynamic within the Gimme Barista Union.

“Interpersonal relations were completely dysfunctional,” said one Gimme barista.

But the Gimme Barista Union had still managed to broker a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with Gimme! Coffee, strictly defining the recall rights of the baristas that had been laid off in March and had not yet already returned to work. 

The legally binding agreement, reached in August 2020, recalled workers based on seniority and a willingness to return to work under the conditions of the pandemic. If a barista said they were not ready to return to work, they would be placed at the top of the list. When a position opened they would be the first to be asked if they were ready to return to one of the shops.

And at the same time, a seed had been planted. Anunu had been tapped to lead Gimme into becoming a worker-owned co-op. According to Anunu, Cuddeback didn’t want to see the business be bought by someone that didn’t share the same values for sourcing fair trade coffee beans, developing relationships with coffee farms — someone who wouldn’t know how to handle the quirks and principles of the business. 

A co-op made sense to him on these terms and, to guarantee the transition, Cuddeback made a loan to the worker co-op for 30% of the company’s value in order for financial institutions to feel secure in backing the rest of the cost. The sale price of the company has not been publicly disclosed.  

Anunu had experience throughout the coffee industry, and in developing co-ops as well, and had even started their career at Gimme! Coffee while they were still a student at Ithaca College in the early 2000s. They told Cuddeback that it was absolutely possible to push Gimme into a new era.

And in May 2020, amid the turmoil of the pandemic and trying to reactivate Gimme! Coffee shops, the process of assessing the feasibility of Gimme turning into a co-op began. 

Project Equity, a national not-for-profit that works with business owners to transition companies into co-ops, began consulting and working with Gimme. The organization coaches businesses on how to establish the internal systems and structures to run a worker-owned co-op, as well as assess the financial feasibility of a business turning into one.

Project Equity’s work with Gimme, though, would end abruptly in March 2021, when the vote to decertify the Gimme Barista Union was conducted.

Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Unbeknownst to Project Equity, the Gimme Barista Union was coming apart at the seams and accusations of union busting were flying. And for the laid-off Gimme baristas, they didn’t have a direct sense of what the company and Project Equity were planning. Only baristas who were on the floor were being included in the conversation around the co-op.

The co-op development smelled of union-busting to the laid-off workers.

It also became clear to the laid-off workers that dissent towards the union had been building among the baristas that had returned to work. Shelton had collected enough signatures to file a decertification petition with the NLRB in Nov. 2020. 

If a member of a union can collect signatures from 30% of the bargaining unit, they are able to file a decertification petition. If the NLRB deems the petition credible, then a simple majority vote will take place to determine whether the union is dissolved or not. 

However, this initial petition from Shelton was dismissed by the NLRB as a result of a filing issue. Still, it represented measurable dissatisfaction with the union among workers.

While relations had become tense within the barista union, the revelation was still shocking to union supporters. One such Gimme barista said, “Susie [Shelton] filed the petition and quite honestly — I’d never felt so betrayed because they gave no indication they were going to do it.”

The Gimme! Barista Union’s contract was set to expire in December 2020, and once it did, it would give Shelton another opportunity to file a petition to decertify. And they did, prompting the Gimme Barista Union’s March 2021 vote.

Then, suddenly, Shelton left Gimme! Coffee soon after filing the petition, and did not participate in the hearing or the vote.

Decertification petitions are supposed to concern the bargaining unit and the union, but Shelton leaving Gimme allowed the company to step in, taking the role Shelton should have had in the process as the petitioner. Gimme! Coffee had a wedge, and they were able to make a legal argument challenging the eligibility of the votes of the laid-off workers.

Suspicion over Shelton’s actions abounded, but they deny conspiring to bust the Gimme Barista Union with management. Shelton said that they filed the petition in service of their co-workers that were “sick of” the union, and the reason they left Gimme was because they broke their ankle, and were unable to work. 

They’ve since moved away from the area.

The Vote

There were 31 eligible voters in the bargaining unit on a waitlist to return to work, or on the floor. Workers that had returned to Gimme! Coffee voted 7 to 4 to decertify the Gimme Barista Union, and just 10 votes were submitted from the workers on the waitlist of workers who had not yet returned.

These 10 votes, including from Mason and Mailloux, have not been unsealed, but are believed to be tilted towards keeping the union intact. 

The company’s argument, again, is this: these 10 employees had been offered their positions back numerous times in accordance with the MOA, and had “no reasonable expectation” to return to work.

But Anunu said that this was “the legal language” for a list of people that they knew didn’t have the intention of coming back to work. 

The three baristas on this list that The Ithaca Voice was able to talk to said they had no intention of returning to work for Gimme! Coffee.

Claire Christensen, a Co-Managing Director of Gimme, said, “We believe in worker self-determination, and we believe in protecting the rights of Gimme employees. And based on that we didn’t think that laid-off baristas who declined to come back to work should vote on issues that didn’t impact them.”

Gimme! Coffee’s argument won out. Their challenge was acknowledged by a regional office of the NLRB. Worker’s United appealed the decision, but was denied. Their argument rests on the strength of the recall rights the Gimme Barista Union won in their Aug 2020 MOA. Worker’s United is arguing that the vote captures a point in time when these recall rights had ample application.

An appeal brought by Worker’s United to the NLRB’s Washington office is the last chance for the Gimme Barista Union. 

Gary Bonadonna, manager of Workers United’s Rochester Regional Joint Board, said that, “As soon as we win that appeal, we’re back to the bargaining table.”

Bonadonna said that in his career with Workers United, he’s only ever seen one other union decertify.

A union for a co-op

The conflict between Gimme! Coffee and the barista union prompted Project Equity to withdraw itself from the company’s co-op transition, in March 2021.  Without directly naming Gimme! Coffee, Project Equity released a statement in April 2021 regarding an “upstate NY union-co-op transition” they were ending their work with due to “a high-level labor unrest.” 

“Some of the company’s actions have been perceived as anti-union, and we want to be cautious not to contribute to such behavior if it is happening. The transition process cannot proceed without clarity around union representation, and full union participation if the workers do remain unionized,” stated the Project Equity. The statement also said that it was a mistake not to involve the union earlier in the process.

A representative from Project Equity said that they were aware of the Gimme Barista Union upon beginning work with Gimme! Coffee in an email to the Ithaca Voice. Cuddeback had made them aware of its presence from the beginning.

Rebecca Lurie, a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) and founder of the university’s Community and Worker Ownership Project has dedicated some of her academic focus on the rare intersection of co-ops and unions. 

Though it has a long history, the idea of a union co-op is novel in today’s world of organized labor, said Lurie. For her, the events at Gimme are a case study for future companies with unions considering turning into co-ops.

“I think Project Equity was blindsided and did not realize what they stumbled into,” said Lurie I think project equity does very good work around the country of helping workers figure out how to purchase and control company, companies as cooperatives.”

But now, a union at Gimme! Coffee could be starting from square one. Anunu and Christensen have said it was their vision for the company to become a union coop. And time will tell if that’s true, or at least needed.

No individual barista The Voice spoke with stated that they were expressly anti-union, but if they had an issue with the Gimme Barista Union, it was usually along the lines of dysfunctional interpersonal politics. This sentiment is troubling to the union supporters that remain working at Gimme. One said, “I always thought that the problems we had with our union were fixable. And that we didn’t need to throw away the protections we had as workers in order to address what we didn’t like.”

Yet, at this point, Gimme’s co-op transition has fulfilled many of the desires to improve the workplace that the former union did not meet. 

Gimme! Coffee’s management team now answers to a six-member board of directors that member-owners vote in. Every Gimme employee, not just baristas, can become member owners, and at an approachable price, for a total of $1,300 to own a “share” of the company, which can also be obtained by committing to paying $50 a month every two weeks. Once the first $50 is laid down, profit-sharing and other powers that come with being a worker-owner activate.

Member-owners will be shown the company’s financials and are also now able to make decisions together on pursuing a 401k plan if they so choose. Upon the public announcement of the coffee company’s transition, Gimme touted that over 50% of its staff had moved to become member-owners.

The enthusiasm over the former barista union has, at least for now, been buried in the folds of this new chapter in the company’s history.

“The willingness to participate and organize just kind of fizzled,” one barista remarked.

With its transition to a co-op, and the nation’s first barista union decertified — though hanging on by just a thread — the name Gimme! Coffee has firmly planted itself as a complete oddity in the larger landscape of labor organizing. 

Clarification: After the original publication of this story, various typos and sentence structures have been addressed or adjusted in order in order to improve the clarity of this piece. These changes did not result in any alteration to the substance of this reporting.

CORRECTION (08/22/2022): The wage increase that the Gimme Barista Union was arguing for in 2019 was originally written as 2.5% every month, rather than every six months after baristas were bar-certified.

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn