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Independent coffeehouses become hot spots for unionizing

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

All right. Now to a story about a coffee lover, a small business owner who poured everything he had into the opening of a coffee shop of his dreams. His workers had dreams of their own. And they formed a union. NPR's Andrea Hsu from Milwaukee.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Some in Milwaukee call this the most beautiful cafe in the city. Picture an airy, modern space with white walls, wood tables and a lush array of plants. It's called Likewise. Scott Lucey is the owner.

SCOTT LUCEY: What are you thinking today?

HSU: He's in his element behind the bar, sharing his obsession for specialty coffee sourced responsibly from all over the world.

LUCEY: The Kibingo, the washed Kibingo.

HSU: Over 12 years, Lucey built up his coffee credentials while working for someone else first as a barista, later as a trainer. On his personal travels, he'd scope out other cafes for ideas and inspiration.

LUCEY: I would tell people, my inevitable end would be to own my own cafe.

HSU: And in 2015, he made that happen. He partnered with a couple of guys who were artisan coffee wholesalers. He borrowed a lot of money and put his own house on the line. Outside his cafe, he gets emotional, taking stock of where he is today.

LUCEY: The positive vibe in there is amazing. And it keeps me going. But sometimes, I want to tell people, like, if only you knew.

HSU: The past two years have been an exceptional challenge, the pandemic, of course. Lucey wonders every day if Likewise will survive.

LUCEY: I am in financial trouble still.

HSU: And in the middle of it all, his staff of six unionized. It happened in 2020, a year before the union campaign at Starbucks took off. A couple of employees felt underpaid and undervalued, left out of important decisions. They were inspired by other Milwaukee coffee workers who were unionizing. Steph Achter, a barista, led the union effort.

STEPH ACHTER: I felt like I was drowning. I felt like we were all drowning. We weren't getting the support that we needed in so many ways. And it wasn't just 2020.

HSU: Lucey knew there was distrust, a lot of it directed at his business partners, who were in a different part of the state. But still, it was disheartening because from the beginning, Lucey wanted his staff to be happy. He wanted his staff to like him. And by many accounts, they did.

LUCEY: I remember moments where I would think about doing something that was going to impact the staff. And I would ask everyone. And I would have unanimous consent. Like, man, those were awesome days.

HSU: But a few years ago came a turning point. Lucey remembers it well. He had called a staff meeting to present availability agreements, something he did seasonally with his employees.

LUCEY: Especially with students, you'd be like, OK. You have your new school schedule. Everyone, please, tell me what your availability is.

HSU: It didn't seem like a big deal until one of his newer employees balked.

LUCEY: And they were like, why do I have to sign this? I'm like, 'cause it's a commitment. And if your availability is constantly changing, like, I can't work with that.

HSU: But he didn't force the issue. He didn't want to fight.

LUCEY: I just, like, took a step back. And I said, like, fine. We don't have to sign them.

HSU: After that, things did not really get better. And then came the pandemic. Steph Achter and a co-worker presented some demands, things like higher wages, more say in the business.

ACHTER: I felt like it was me kind of trying to reach out and be like, help, please, you know?

HSU: But sales had fallen in the pandemic. Lucey was already paying himself less than he'd made at his old job. So the answer was, no, not now. That's when Achter turned to a local chapter of the Teamsters Union and asked co-workers to sign union cards. Lucey didn't know what to say or what he could say. Under federal law, employers can't question employees about union activities or make any promises.

LUCEY: It was easy to be afraid. Like, what if I say the wrong thing?

HSU: Starbucks and Amazon have spent huge amounts of money fighting union campaigns. At Lucey's cafe, it was mostly on him. His business partners kept asking, are you talking to the staff? And his response...

LUCEY: I need to be having conversations with people about a contentious topic? No. No, thanks. I'll pass. I want to brew coffee and dial in espresso.

HSU: The staff asked for voluntary recognition of the union. Lucey said, no, let it go to a vote, which then led to accusations.

LUCEY: Oh, you don't believe in equity if you don't support this. You're a union buster if you don't say this.

HSU: In the end, the staff voted 3-2 for the union. One person didn't vote. The staff got a contract that includes some of what they'd been seeking, like one-month schedules that come out 10 days in advance, which is unusual in the service industry - also, a clause preventing Lucey from firing or disciplining anyone without just cause and a $20 a month wellness stipend to cover things like yoga classes and bikeshare fees.

LUCEY: I support those things. And I would like to believe I would choose to do those things anyway.

HSU: What Lucey regrets agreeing to - a 50 cent an hour raise every year. He doesn't think the business can afford that. And then there's what he calls the red tape. The contract dictates how much time he's allowed to spend behind the bar in his own cafe. And when he wants to make changes, like extending store hours, he's supposed to negotiate it through the union even after he's checked in with everyone and gotten their OK.

LUCEY: I don't want an additional contract giving me rules that I have to do. It's like, that's why I quit my job and started my own job is 'cause I wanted to do things my way.

HSU: Steph Achter, who is now the shop steward at Likewise, actually kind of gets it.

ACHTER: I've known Scott now for five years. He's a person who I care about. And I think it has to be really hard for him to feel like he has to let go of some control over his business.

HSU: But to Achter, having rules spelled out in a contract is crucial to a good working environment. They've been holding Lucey to the contract, filing grievances whenever he skirts the rules.

ACHTER: After everything that we went through to get this first contract, I feel really invested in making sure that it works.

HSU: Scott Lucey is now the sole owner of Likewise. He bought out his partners last year. It seemed better for everyone. But sales are still down by close to 30% from before the pandemic.

LUCEY: I have been the closest to failure that I've ever been. So yeah, pretty scared still.

HSU: The cafe is finally back to its old hours, and foot traffic is picking up. Lucey hopes it will be enough to save his business and the union jobs that come with it.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News, Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDALL MILES' "OVERGROWTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.