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Fed Up With Management, Great Lakes Coffee Workers in Detroit Move to Unionize

The Midtown location has been closed for more than a month amid concerns over alleged COVID-19 issues

People holding signs that read “Great Lakes Coffee Unfair to Workers On Strike” standing on the corner of Woodward and Alexandrine in Midtown, Detroit, MI
Baristas from Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co. in Midtown began picketing at 7 a.m. Wednesday February 16, 2022 outside of the cafe at Woodward and Alexandrine in Midtown to request that ownership recognize UNITE HERE! Local 24 as its collective bargaining representative. This is the first coffee shop organizing effort to take shape in Detroit.
Photo by Serena Maria Daniels
Serena Maria Daniels is the editor for Eater Detroit.

More than 100 labor rights organizers expressed solidarity with baristas from Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co. in Midtown on Wednesday, who launched a strike as part of a bid to unionize amid an ongoing struggle with ownership over COVID protocols.

Among those who spoke to rally crowds that gathered en-masse at noon, was Detroit City Councilwoman Gabriela Santiago-Romero, whose district six includes Midtown.

“I was in the service industry for over 10 years and quite frankly, I had to work multiple jobs because one job was not enough and one job should be enough,” Santiago-Romero after giving speech amid applause from organizers. “For me, it’s important that we support workers, that we unionize, that we give them what they deserve, because we deserve jobs that provide us dignity, that provide us flexibility to live our lives.”

It’s been more than a month since Great Lakes Coffee closed its doors indefinitely amid a COVID-19 outbreak that allegedly infected most of its employees.

So far, 20 out of 24 baristas from the company have signed union cards and are requesting that the company recognize UNITE HERE! Local 24 as its collective bargaining representative, according to an email that was sent to management on Tuesday.

In addition to picketing outside of the the company’s flagship Midtown location beginning at 7 a.m., baristas also began picketing outside of Woodward Corner Market in Royal Oak, where Great Lakes Coffee also has locations.

In the email, Great Lakes Coffee baristas and cooks allege that they brought several issues to supervisors including feeling disrespected by upper management, failure to establish communication, failure to consistently provide personal protection equipment, failure to enforce masking and other COVID protocols, unsatisfactory equipment maintenance, and unsatisfactory wages over the last several months, according to the email addressed to management:

Our attempts at communication have been dismissed, shut down or met with silence; we have received a concerning lack of communication from you regarding the state of our employment, Midtown’s ‘indefinite’ closure or ability to work at other satellite locations leaving us feeling disrespected and seeking resolution.

When the cafe and restaurant closed in early January, according to the Metro Times, several employees had tested positive for COVID, forcing the remaining workers to pick up extra responsibilities. Employees had asked for hazard pay and said that until all workers tested negative for COVID, they would not return to work, the Metro Times reported.

Eater has reached out for comment from Great Lakes Coffee’s management and will update this piece if we receive a response.

The move to unionize reflects a national trend in food-service industry organizing. Employees of the Wisconsin-based chain Colectivo Coffee, won a contentious battle with management last summer to become the largest unionized workforce at a U.S. coffee chain.

In December, a group of Starbucks employees in Buffalo, New York, made history when they became the first workers of the mega coffee chain to unionize through Workers United New York. Last month, a group of employees at a downtown Chicago Starbucks became the first of the company’s Midwestern locations to sign union cards. Meanwhile, hourly workers at four Michigan Starbucks locations announced plans in January to unionize (in Ann Arbor, Clinton Township, and Grand Blanc), followed by employees from an additional four Michigan locations (three more in Ann Arbor and one in Lansing) earlier this month.

Locally, baristas from the Ann Arbor-based chain Mighty Good Coffee launched a unionizing campaign in 2018 to improve labor conditions after a former worker accused the company of racial discrimination. The company closed down all four of its cafes in 2019 in the midst of employees’ first union contract negotiation, illustrating just how difficult the food-service industry is to unionize.

Lex Blom, who’s worked at Great Lakes Coffee off and on for more than four years, was among about 20 protesters picketing outside of the cafe Wednesday morning. She says that employees have for years brought up other safety concerns with management but that those grievances fell on mostly to deaf ears. The COVID outbreak, which she says erupted around the end of December, drove baristas to organize.

“COVID was absolutely the tipping point,” says Blom.

This story is developing and Eater will update this post when more information is available.

Of the many union organizers from various locals that showed support of the baristas at Wednesday’s rally was Cindy Estrada, vice president of the UAW. From the bed of a pickup truck, she riled the crowd by calling for fair wages, healthcare benefits, and paid time off for the baristas and other frontline workers.

“We will not be crossing picket lines — and we love coffee as organizers — but we sure as hell won’t be getting any Great Lakes until you get a contract and you you get recognition,” she said.

Update: February 16, 2022, 1:44 p.m.: This article was updated to include comments from Gabriela Santiago-Romero, Cindy Estrada, and to reflect the latest information available.