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2022 Lawton, Oklahoma Chautauqua June 21 - 25

Coffee shop baristas across the country are driving a surge in union elections

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A generation ago, your typical union shop may have been an auto factory, a steel plant. Today, it might sound like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILK STEAMER)

PFEIFFER: Yes, latte drinkers, that is the sound of frothing milk. Across the country, coffee shop baristas are growing a labor movement with stunning speed. They're driving a surge in union elections, up 70% from this time last year. Starbucks accounts for a lot of that, but baristas at smaller shops are organizing, too. NPR's Andrea Hsu went to Wisconsin to talk with baristas about why them and why now.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: A few years ago, Kellie Lutz was itching for a cause.

KELLIE LUTZ: I was just trying to find what I wanted to be involved in, I guess. Like, I started off with wanting to be involved with environmental work when I was living in Kenosha. I was involved in, like, the student government.

HSU: She was in college at the time, surrounded by energetic, engaged young people who wanted to change the world. Then a particular movement caught her eye - fast-food workers demanding $15 an hour. Lutz had a part-time job as a barista at Stone Creek Coffee in Milwaukee. She was earning $8.25 an hour plus tips in a job that was stressful. It dawned on her she didn't need to go far to become an activist.

LUTZ: I realized that it could just happen at my workplace, so (laughter)...

HSU: Her workplace was not a corporate behemoth. It was a small business founded on progressive values by a guy who once worked as a barista for Starbucks. Still, she found herself wondering, how come my hourly wage can't even buy two lattes? And that got her thinking more about the struggles of working people.

LUTZ: Like, Bernie as well, you know, saying, like, we're existing in a country with a huge unequal distribution of wealth. I think a lot of those principles, like, really was, like, shaping my head at the time.

HSU: She came across a Facebook post from a union, the Teamsters Local 344. It said, if you want to organize your workplace, contact us. She didn't know much about unions, but both her grandfathers had been members. One was an electrical worker, the other a pilot. They'd grumbled over the years about unions' declining power and about workers losing their voice. Finally, Lutz felt like she understood their frustration.

LUTZ: We really do have to do something to make people's lives better; not only my own but, like, everyone.

HSU: She now had a mission and got to work. She met with the Teamsters and got a number of like-minded co-workers to join her union drive. But in the end, it wasn't enough. Her workplace rejected the union, much to the relief of her bosses. Shortly thereafter, Lutz took her activism elsewhere.

But the following year, a barista at another Milwaukee cafe got in touch with the same union, and this time, they were successful. Steph Achter, the lead organizer, had spent 15 years working as a barista in different coffee shops.

STEPH ACHTER: It's a really hard industry to make a career out of.

HSU: Achter hadn't gotten many raises over the years, and on top of that...

ACHTER: Emotional labor is really high. Schedules are really inconsistent. It's hard to take time off, to plan your life outside of work.

HSU: And then, of course, COVID. Achter's former co-worker, Destiny DeVooght, puts it this way.

DESTINY DEVOOGHT: I think the pandemic, while awful, created the perfect conditions to foster worker solidarity.

HSU: The collective stress of it all strengthened the bonds that were already there. DeVooght says baristas tend to be liberal. They're passionate about some of the same causes, worker's rights among them. DeVooght heard about the union campaign and was on board right away.

DEVOOGHT: Honestly, I felt giddy at work because I felt like I was part of something. And I felt like I was more connected to them because we were all working together towards something that would benefit us all.

HSU: Baristas also generally have more education than, say, fast-food workers, and they see their activism as a way to leave their mark. DeVooght is working at a different cafe now and trying to get a union campaign going there, too, even though the new college graduate is leaving Milwaukee soon.

DEVOOGHT: We're historically a union city, and it's kind of gone downhill with factories going out, but I want to be part of bringing that back.

HSU: Steph Achter ended up with a smaller raise than hoped for in the union contract. The cafe is still digging out from pandemic losses, and the contract has been a source of tension at work. But that hasn't dampened Achter's enthusiasm.

ACHTER: Being in a union, I feel like for the first time I have job security. Like, I can make this a sustainable career.

HSU: And that, Achter says, is worth the fight.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News, Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.