Updated at 4:55 p.m. March 30
Employees at a high-end grocery store in Jamaica Plain filed a petition Wednesday to form a union, joining a campaign to organize workers at Starbucks outlets and other small coffee shops across Massachusetts.
The unionizing effort at City Feed and Supply, which also offers a cafe and deli, comes on the heels of union campaigns at other local businesses, including eight Pavement Coffeehouse locations throughout Boston, Darwin’s Ltd. in Cambridge, Forge, Diesel and Bloc cafes in Somerville and 11 Starbucks locations around the state.
City Feed workers told GBH News they hope to negotiate for benefits, opportunities for promotions, more power for employees when faced with harassment from customers, and better pay within a more transparent structure. Leaders of the effort say they have collected union authorization cards from a majority of the 40 workers at the store’s two locations and announced their intent to form a union affiliated with the Boston branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. The historic union with socialist ties was founded a century ago, then known as the Wobblies, and currently represents about 9,000 workers across the country.
“Workers at City Feed have long been proud of our commitment to sustainability, ethical food sourcing and local community, and we hope that those values will extend to the longstanding civil rights of workers to unionize and collectively bargain,” workers wrote in a letter delivered to owners David Warner and Kristine Cortese on Wednesday. “We hope that both City Feed and our local JP community will respect its service workers and our legal right to organize at our workplace, and we urge you to pledge not to engage in any union-busting activity.”
Warner did not say whether the company will voluntarily recognize the union effort, telling GBH News in an email that the owners are working on "a better understanding of what all of this means" and will "give it some thought" before making a decision on how to move forward.
City Feed opened its first location in 2000 and has long partnered with local groups and nonprofits focused on hunger relief, sustainable farming and food equity in Jamaica Plain and surrounding neighborhoods.
In their letter, employees asked that ownership and management “not interfere with our unionizing effort in any manner, including any attempts at intimidation via one-on-one meetings regarding this organizing drive,” which regional Starbucks union organizers have accused their management of doing. Federal labor laws allow employers to present a case against organizing or joining a union.
Althea Berg, who has worked at City Feed since November 2020, said she was inspired by workers unionizing at Starbucks and Pavement locations. They said a union felt "like the only way to go forward” to address their concerns. Other workers expressed similar feelings.
“There are no, like, benefits really associated with working full time at City Feed, even for people who work there for really long. There's no, like, ‘you’ve been here for six months, you’re eligible for a raise’ kind of thing. There’s nothing like that,” said Hannah Cuthbert, a supervisor who has worked at City Feed since September. “The turnover rate is high, and there’s no real incentive to stay, so most people are young, but there are people with families to support and people who are getting through school — everyone has financial burdens they have to bear.”
Managers are often hired from outside the business, they said, which limits growth opportunities for current staff.
“They don't incentivize you to stay there longer. It's not a place that they make comfortable for people who would want to stay on and dedicate themselves to being there for a while,” Berg said. “At the core of it, we want transparency around wages and room for people to move up if they’re doing well.”
Workers began meeting in small groups to discuss workplace issues, an effort that waxed and waned for the better part of a year.
“The turnover has been so high that at different points we would have a lot of support, but then people would leave,” Berg said. “Then new people come in and it’s like, OK, we’ve got to get this group of people together to sign cards so that it’s actually the percent that we need.”
For the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election, 30% of workers need to sign cards or a petition saying they want a union. As of Wednesday, employees at City Feed say they have the support of at least 60%.
Within the past few months, Emery Spooner, another City Feed worker, said meetings became more regular, held in a small, poster-covered room that serves as the Boston bureau for the left-leaning publication Workers World Party and a community space in the Sam Adams brewery building in Jamaica Plain.
“Eventually, through those conversations, we got more folks involved and we realized that we have the support, the solidarity and the desire to actually change this workplace," Spooner said. "Every worker deserves a union.”
This story was updated to correct the pronouns of two workers.