Last week, I went to my desk and read a notice that every small business owner dreads: My employees wanted to form a union. I had a sinking feeling in my chest — largely because we are still nowhere close to having recovered from the pandemic. But when I took a breath and thought about it for a moment, I knew I had to support them.
I recognize that most small business owners probably wouldn’t see it the same way. After all, there’s never been a unionized coffeeshop in Massachusetts before, and after a year like we’ve all just had, this may not seem like the best time to try.
But to understand why I’m giving it a chance, you have to understand the kind of place our business, Pavement Coffeehouse, is. You also need to understand the kind of people we attract and the kind of moment we’re in.
For my part, I’ve always felt a sense of camaraderie with my employees, because it wasn’t that long ago that I was one of them — a recent college grad who worked the counter in a bagel shop on the corner of Harvard and Comm Ave in Allston before I took a chance (and a big risk) when the boss offered to sell me the place. With lines out the door on Saturday mornings while the stereo pumped Paranoid by Black Sabbath, The Clash, and Pixies, Pavement became a cool, fun place to work — and a workplace where employees could express themselves and their individuality.
But while I’ve always felt a kinship with my employees, I’m not one of them. I’m the boss. And in the eyes of a lot of people today, bosses are part of the problem. As someone who supported unions all my life — and voted for Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders — I get it: Gen Z watched their parents get crushed by the financial crisis a dozen years ago. They are sick and tired of not being heard as rents triple and college debt soars 1000% while our social safety net frays.
Will unionizing Pavement — a small business with 75 employees and no investors — fix any of that? Probably not, but if I was 21 years old, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t have signed that union card myself, if only for the chance it offered to put a few more dollars in my pocket and the sense of empowerment and solidarity it would give me.
Still, as much as I support and empathize with what my employees are feeling right now, I’d be lying if I didn’t say how concerned I am about what unionization could mean for the future of Pavement.
First and foremost, we are still deeply underwater after the pandemic. The single worst day of my life was when Gov. Charlie Baker announced the state was shutting down and I had no choice but to let go of 174 people. I’m not ashamed to admit that I wept. It seemed like the whole world was coming to an end. I felt like I failed myself and everyone who depended on me — my wife and two daughters, my employees.
Without help from the federal Paycheck Protection and Economic Injury Disaster Loan programs, we would have closed. While revenues are now down only 40% (compared to the 80% as they were at the height of the pandemic), we are still losing about $1,000 a day, one of our locations and our bakery remain closed and we’ve only been able to hire back less than half the number of people we had before.
Part of why things remain slow is because we’ve tried to take care of employees. As hard as it was to close up shop and let so many people go, that decision is why we didn’t have to permanently shutter our business like the nearly 4-in-10 small businesses in Massachusetts that did. Instead, we were able to hunker down and pivot to online orders and e-commerce to serve our (awesomely loyal) customer base and eventually build back our business.
We’ve also gone way above and beyond state regs on COVID-19 protocols. Even as the state has opened back up, we are still requiring masks for our employees and are takeout only. As much as we wanted to resume operations back when Baker raised capacity limits in December, our employee’s safety was our priority. In a few weeks, because of the state’s high vaccination rates and dropping COVID-19 cases, we will resume indoor seating in order to continue our climb out of the pandemic hole.
And so for me, that’s what the negotiations over the next few months will come down to: Can unionization help us make common sense changes that empower employees while also recognizing that post-COVID restaurants are fragile? Can it help us work better together as a team and still be profitable as a business? And above all, can it help us stop seeing these issues as a zero-sum game where if one side wins, the other necessarily loses?
I don’t know the answers. And now may not be the easiest time for any of us to be having this conversation. But since we are, let's figure it out.
Larry Margulies is owner of Pavement Coffeehouse.