Employees at Pavement Coffeehouse, a local chain with locations around Greater Boston, have begun the process of forming a union — hoping to become the first coffee shop in the state with a unionized workforce.
Eleven members of the Pavement Coffee Organizing Committee, represented by the New England Joint Board UNITE HERE union, delivered a letter to Pavement Coffee Roasters owner Larry Margulies Tuesday morning that declared their intent to form a union. In the letter, employees asked Margulies to voluntarily recognize the union, not engage in “any union busting activity” and enter into a good faith contract negotiation.
In a statement to GBH News, Margulies said that he would recognize the union effort. “We have no intention of working to stop our staff members from organizing,” Margulies said. “If they have an established union to present to us, we will work with them from there.”
Emma Delaney, a 24-year-old supervisor who has worked at the company’s Allston location for almost two years, says she expects that a majority of Pavement’s approximately 80 employees will have signed cards indicating their support to form a union as of this week.
“We’re sick of being exploited,” Delaney said, “and I think the fact that we get the opportunity to be a blueprint is a huge driving force behind this.”
The union committee plans to demand a pay audit across all levels of employment — from management to kitchen staff — and a base salary increase for everyone. Currently, employees say they make Massachusetts minimum wage in entry-level positions, with a 25-cent hourly raise after six months of satisfactory work.
“That’s just absolutely not enough for being a good employee for six months,” barista Isabel DeContreras told GBH News. “And that’s if you’re good — if you’re only average, your pay might stay the same. The fact that that’s a policy is messed up, and something that needs to change.”
DeContreras says they received a 50-cent hourly pay increase after being promoted from front counter to barista, in addition to a 25-cent hourly raise after working at the Allston location for six months.
The union committee also plans to negotiate for paid mental health days and a more flexible break schedule, a demand inspired by the increased stress of working during a pandemic, according to Jude Hanley, a 27-year-old supervisor at the company’s Allston location.
The first Pavement Coffee location opened in 2010 on Boylston Street. The business quickly took off, eventually growing to eight shops across Boston, Brookline and Cambridge. In 2014, owner Lawrence Margulies transformed his former business ventures, Bagel Rising and Espresso Royale Cafe, into Pavement locations. Though the Berklee and Harvard Square locations remain temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of the shops were able to remain open for most of the past year using in-app purchasing and takeout service.
“Industry workers and café workers were considered essential during a pandemic when the rest of the world had to close down,” Hanley said. “We’re up early, we’re serving people face to face, interacting with them and taking cash from them. I think we deserve to be compensated; we deserve to be paid a livable wage.”
Another contract goal is to demand total financial and managerial transparency. Madeleine Tomasic, a 23-year-old supervisor who has worked at multiple Pavement locations since 2019, says many employees disagreed with top-down decisions about reopening during the pandemic and new rules allowing customers to go without masks.
“They were making decisions unilaterally without consulting anybody and rarely delivering us information at all,” Tomasic said. “We are also very short-staffed recently, a lot of people have been quitting, and they’ve had a lot of us working at different locations, which isn’t typical. I’m hearing the same sentiment across multiple locations: It isn’t safe, and nobody’s OK.”
If Margulies had refused to negotiate a contract and recognize the union based on signed cards, Pavement’s organizing committee had planned to file a petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board, which could then conduct a vote.
If Margulies continues to recognize the union based on the majority of employees' stated intent to unionize, negotiations can begin without a NLRB vote, according to Mitch Fallon, political director at the New England Joint Board and a union representative for the Pavement union committee.
“I hope that [Margulies] does take the message that unions are the backbone of the middle class in this country,” Fallon said. “If we want to be building a stable middle class, then we need to be supporting unions.”
The pandemic led to an 80% drop in revenue during the past year, according to Margulies. Owners and management took the opportunity to bring in an outside consultant to “elevate our employee benefits and workplace culture as we rebuild, rehire and re-train,” Margulies wrote in a statement to GBH News. “That work is on-going. We’re a local business doing our best in times of incredible uncertainty and look forward to continuing communication with employees to find common ground that creates a solid foundation for Pavement as a whole.”
Though the union is still in its beginning stages, Margulies has pledged to continue to work with employees as the effort continues.
“Our employees are our life’s blood and providing them with a safe and positive work environment is absolutely critical to us,” Margulies said. “We are committed to supporting our employees, including their effort to unionize.”
Coffee shops have long been a challenging organizing target for unions, and if the Pavement workers are successful, it could set a standard for similar businesses across the state, Fallon said.
“Coffee shops aren’t usually where a lot of people are looking to make careers, it’s a lot of people who are in college, people who are moving on to somewhere else, and that could be why we haven’t seen it before,” Fallon said. “I think that Pavement is the first kind of domino that will knock over some others.”
Employees at Tatte Bakery & Cafe protested outside the local chain’s shops last July, accusing founder and CEO Tzurit Or of creating a toxic workplace culture, making derogatory comments and creating an unsafe culture for employees of color. Or stepped down as CEO and issued an apologetic statement at the time for a "hurtful" management style.
“Instead of taking the Tatte route, which was really great for what they were doing at that moment, we want something a little more long term,” Delaney said. “This is so that it’s not just this wave of people and the next who will get some benefit, we want the future generations of everyone coming in and out to have contract security.”
Even as she’s helping to organize the union movement, Delaney has one foot out the door — having given her two weeks to pursue a new job opportunity outside of food service. She says she’s still invested in this effort to elevate food service jobs to a level of higher respect.
“I don't understand why we can't just make it a place where people don't want to leave all the time,” Delaney said. “I think a lot of the high turnover rate is because the jobs suck, so why not make them a little better?”
The low wages, long hours and lack of agency that employees feel is paired with a negative and trivializing perception of coffeeshop jobs, Delaney says.
“There's people with kids who work at Pavement, they need to put food on the table and they need to pay rent,” Delaney said. “A lot of people are putting themselves through college. The food industry in general is just really looked down upon as a job, like it’s for kids, or it’s not a career. But that's so unfair to look at it that way, because if the whole food service industry were to up and leave right now, the country would be on fire.”
Hanley, who has worked for the company for about a year, says they want to ensure worker’s rights at the chain long after they leave.
“I could find another job and go to their coffee shop, but at the end of the day, it's not just about me. I know there are going to be people who will come after me, and I’m not going to leave Pavement worse than I found it,” Hanley said. “It’s not just about Pavement and me and my coworkers — it’s about the industry as a whole. I don't know why we can't all just support each other and give each other what we need, especially when people ask nicely.”
This story has been updated to reflect comments from Pavement owner Larry Margulies, which he provided after the original story had published.