Grocery and cafe workers in Jamaica Plain join movement to unionize

Employees at an upscale grocery store in Jamaica Plain filed a petition Wednesday to form a union, joining a campaign to organize workers at Starbucks outlets and other small cafes in Massachusetts.

The organizing effort at City Feed and Supply, which also offers a cafe and delicatessen, follows union drives at other local businesses, including eight pavement cafe locations across Boston, Darwin’s Ltd. in Cambridge, Forge, Diesel and Block cafes in Somerville and 11 Starbucks places around the state.

City Feed workers told GBH News they hope to negotiate perks, opportunities for promotions, more power for employees in the face of harassment from customers and better pay within a more transparent structure. Leaders of the effort say they collected union authorization cards from a majority of the 40 workers at the store’s two sites and announced their intention to form a union affiliated with the Boston branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. The historic union with socialist ties was founded a century ago, then known as the Wobblies, and currently represents around 9,000 workers across the country.

“City Feed workers have long been proud of our commitment to sustainability, ethical food sourcing, and the local community, and we hope these values ​​will extend to workers’ longstanding civil rights to unionize and bargain. collectively,” the workers wrote in a delivered letter. to owners David Warner and Kristine Cortese on Wednesday. “We hope that City Feed and our local JP community will respect its service workers and our legal right to organize in our workplace, and we urge you to pledge not to engage in any union busting activity.”

Warner did not say whether the company would voluntarily acknowledge the union’s effort, telling GBH News in an email that the owners were working on “a better understanding of what this all means” and “will think about it” before proceeding. take a decision. how to move forward.

City Feed opened its first site in 2000 and has a long history of working in partnership with local groups and nonprofits focused on hunger relief, sustainable agriculture and food equity in the Jamaican Plain and the surrounding neighborhoods.

In their letter, the employees asked ownership and management “not to interfere in any way with our organizing efforts, including any attempts at intimidation through one-on-one meetings regarding this organizing campaign,” which Starbucks regional union organizers accused their management of doing. . Federal labor laws allow employers to file a complaint against organizing or joining a union.

Althea Berg, who has worked at City Feed since November 2020, said she was inspired by the unionization of workers at Starbucks and Pavement stores. She said a union felt “the only way forward” to address her concerns. Other workers expressed similar sentiments.

“There really aren’t any perks associated with working full-time at City Feed, even for people who’ve been there a very long time. There’s no like ‘you’ve been there six months, you’re entitled to a raise.’ There’s no such thing,” said Hannah Cuthbert, a supervisor who has worked at City Feed since September. “The turnover rate is high and there is no real incentive. to stay, so most people are young, but there are people who have families to support and people who are finishing their education – everyone has financial burdens to bear.”

Managers are often hired from outside the company, she said, limiting growth opportunities for current staff.

“They don’t encourage you to stay there any longer. It’s not a place that they make comfortable for people who would like to stay and dedicate themselves to being there for a while,” Berg said. “At the heart of that, we want transparency around wages and the ability for people to progress if they’re doing well.”

Assembly Hall and Publication Center of the Global Workers’ Party in Jamaica Plain

Tori Bedford / GBH News

Workers began meeting in small groups to discuss workplace issues, an effort that went up and down for much of the year.

“The turnover was so high that at different times we would have a lot of support, but then people would leave,” Berg said. “Then new people come in and it’s like, OK, we need to get this group of people together to sign cards so that’s actually the percentage we need.”

For the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election, 30% of workers must sign cards or a petition saying they want a union. On Wednesday, City Feed employees say they have at least 60% support.

In recent months, Emery Spooner, another City Feed employee, said meetings have become more regular, taking place in a small, poster-covered room that serves as the Boston office for the left-leaning publication Workers World Party. and a community space in the Sam Adams Brewery Building in Jamaica Plain.

“Eventually, through these conversations, we got more people involved and realized that we had the support, the solidarity and the desire to really change this workplace,” Spooner said. “Every worker deserves a union.”

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