Heine Brothers’ Coffee—a local chain in the Louisville, Kentucky, area with a reputation for being a progressive, socially conscious business—continues to fight its workers’ efforts to establish a union. Despite facing what they allege to be blatant union busting by the company, Heine Brothers’ workers have persisted with their organizing and have now filed for an election to have their union formally recognized and represented by the National Conference for Firemen and Oilers 32BJ, Service Employees International Union (NCFO 32 BJ SEIU); they are also pursuing action against the company for labor violations. The union filed charges on July 21 with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) addressing four alleged violations of the Unfair Labor Practices Act. These violations include the closure of the Douglass Loop location in retaliation for union activity, the interrogation and surveillance of employees regarding union activity, retaliation against an individual employee for union activity, and forcing employees to attend “captive audience” meetings.

“I was called ‘unreliable,’” said Edwards. “There’s been plenty of times I have picked up shifts for the company, covering for [everyone] and always feeling abandoned when it was time for someone to help me out.”

In addition to these charges, the union filed a separate claim with the NLRB on July 27 concerning the firing of Tameira Edwards. The union alleges that Edwards, the former manager of the Douglass Loop store, who was demoted to a non-managerial position after Heine Brothers’ abruptly closed the location, was fired because of her support of the union at her new store. Edwards was a popular employee who had previously been acknowledged in the “Barista Highlight” section of the Heine Brothers’ website—and when Heine Brothers’ management posted a sign at the closed Douglass Loop location, the sign mentioned Edwards by name, reassuring customers that she was still employed by the company. 

Edwards, who had worked for Heine Brothers’ for three years, was moved to another store in the Hikes Point neighborhood, significantly farther away from her home than the Douglass Loop location, which was already a lengthy trek. “When I first started working there at sixteen I took two [buses] to my location. We would close at 11 PM and I would have to catch two more [buses] to get home at night, so sometimes I wouldn’t get home until one in the morning,” Edwards told TRNN.

Edwards says that she was told she was being fired for failing to get her shifts covered when she needed to miss work, but she claims that the mechanism for requesting shift coverage was unnecessarily complicated and that the decision did not take into account how frequently she has helped others who needed their shifts covered over the years. “I was called ‘unreliable,’” said Edwards. “There’s been plenty of times I have picked up shifts for the company, covering for [everyone] and always feeling abandoned when it was time for someone to help me out.”

Edwards believes that the real reason for her firing was her support of the unionization efforts. She had previously been written up at her new location for writing personal messages on Heine Brothers’ cups indicating her support for the union. While she was not publicly supportive of the union drive when she was a manager at Douglass Loop, Edwards says she was asked numerous times by Heine Brothers’ upper management to report on union activity, and she often relayed to them that she believed the workers in her store were firmly pro-union. 

While she was not publicly supportive of the union drive when she was a manager at Douglass Loop, Edwards says she was asked numerous times by Heine Brothers’ upper management to report on union activity, and she often relayed to them that she believed the workers in her store were firmly pro-union.

“So every Monday we were on a call [with] people at HQ asking a series of questions about union efforts at our location. One of the things was they would read off a list of names and I would answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ [to indicate] if I was aware of their support,” said Edwards. “Other things that were asked of me is if the union efforts had increased or decreased since the union went public. One time I was on a phone call with [Operations Director] Tom Jenkins and he asked, ‘Is there anything we can do to change people’s minds?’ I answered ‘No,’ to which he responded, ‘That’s disheartening.'”

These calls are the basis for the charges regarding Heine Brothers’ surveilling employees’ organizing activities. The union filed those charges with the NLRB on July 21; Edwards was fired less than a week after that. Edwards says she was the only Black manager at any of Heine Brothers’ 18 locations around the Louisville area. In a city where Black residents make up a quarter of the population, none of those 18 locations are located in traditionally Black neighborhoods. The lack of Black managers is especially jarring for a company that often rests on its “progressive” laurels (listing over 75 nonprofit organizations it has partnered with on the home page of its website). However, this is not the first time that issues concerning race have been a problem for the company and its workers.

In June of 2020, Heine Brothers’ founder and CEO Mike Mays had to issue a mea culpa after he had initially directed employees to not place Black Lives Matter signs in their stores. Mays’ decision to ban these signs was made while the city was roiling from the police murder of Breonna Taylor and the protests and mass arrests that followed. Locals pointed out that the sign ban was particularly hypocritical seeing as the company had previously posted quotes from Louisville anti-racist activist Anne Braden on their cups.

“Ultimately I think it was seeing that he was going to lose customers, aka money, that made him decide to reverse his support.”

Ashley, Heine Brothers’ Coffee barista

Ashley, a barista at Heine Brothers during the time of this controversy said that Mays didn’t change the policy after the workers started complaining but only reversed course after customers began threatening to boycott the store. “We had this group chat where everyone was sending screenshots of what they sent him, everyone was saying how much this job meant to them because of the special bond they have with their coworkers and begging [Mays] to change his approach,” explained Ashley, “Ultimately I think it was seeing that he was going to lose customers, aka money, that made him decide to reverse his support.”

Ashley thinks that if a union had been in place during the Black Lives Matter sign effort the workers would have been able to ensure that changes would have been made without retaliation from the company. “There were several people who experienced some kind of disciplinary action after speaking up,” said Ashley. “They could have been protected. I’m excited to see people there unionizing now because they deserve better.”

Edwards, who has received a lot of community support since her firing (including from Kentucky senate candidate Charles Booker), has also found solidarity among her fellow workers. “[The union] had supported me even before I signed the petition,” said Edwards. “They helped me try to get my job back and made it public and known what this company is doing to me and all of their workers that put money in their pockets.”

Community support for the union has been integral to the workers’ efforts. At the press conference in downtown Louisville on July 26 where workers announced they were filing for an election, many speakers mentioned how vital that support has been.  Speaking to the crowd, Robert Smith, the Secretary-Treasurer of the NCFO 32BJ, SEIU, credited “The support this community has shown through online petition signing, through yard signs, through comments at the workplace… This community has rallied around these workers.”

Jasmin Bush, a union organizer and barista at the Gardiner Lane location, told TRNN that the community’s support and displays of solidarity have been very helpful for staff morale. “[Customers] are overjoyed that we are organizing. Every day I get customers that come in and they want ‘Union Strong’ written on their cup or they come through the drive thru and they say ‘Hey, we support you. How can we help you?’” 

This community support was especially pronounced after Heine Brothers’ abruptly closed the popular and vocally pro-union Douglass Loop location, according to Peter Hyle, a union organizer and barista at the downtown Main Street store. “We got so much community support through the closing of Douglass Loop that it really was a boost to the entire movement, the entire unionizing campaign,” Hyle told TRNN. “I think it made very clear to the people of Louisville what the company was willing to do and how disrespectful it was to the baristas that have spent years working for the company.”

“We got so much community support through the closing of Douglass Loop that it really was a boost to the entire movement, the entire unionizing campaign.”

Peter Hyle, Union organizer and Heine Brothers’ Coffee Barista

The union has charged Heine Brothers’ with committing unfair labor practices by closing the Douglass Loop store and firing Tameira Edwards, but the charges don’t stop there. Sabrina Lindsey, a union organizer and barista at the Gardiner Lane location, told TRNN about the company taking disciplinary actions against her in a suspected act of retaliation for her organizing activity, for which the union has also filed charges with the NLRB. “I have been a vocal advocate for our union. I have talked to my coworkers, I have been posting and sharing on social media, and I have been talking to the press about why it is so essential for Heine Brothers’ employees to have the power of a union behind us,” said Lindsey. “Because of this, when I voiced concerns to management about certain conditions in my store, I was reprimanded. Let’s be clear: This is anti-union activity and we will not sit back and let Heine Brothers’ management or Mike Mays retaliate against us.”

Smith suspects that one of the reasons Heine Brothers’ has been so aggressive in its opposition to the union has to do with the way service employees are often treated as disposable and, therefore, not worthy of a union. “For so many years [service industry workers] have been kind of looked at as expendable and a revolving door,” Smith told TRNN. But from Heine Brothers’ to Starbucks stores around the country, more and more service workers like Smith are showing that they know how valuable their labor is and how much their employers’ business depends on the services rank-and-file employees provide to, and the relationships they build with customers. “The companies didn’t really care about communities or relationships and what was developed between the worker and the public,” Smith said.

Hyle agrees and adds that service industry jobs are often looked at as temporary because of the routine exploitation that workers who do those jobs face. “I think a big reason as to why people say it is not supposed to be a job that you stay at, it’s not supposed to be a job where you can make a decent living and have access to affordable healthcare, is because most companies are so accustomed to exploiting their workers,” he told TRNN.

But treating service workers unfairly, Smith believes, doesn’t just negatively impact employees and customers, but it ultimately hurts the business’s bottom line. This is especially true in the coffee industry, he notes, which so often runs on the ability of cafe workers to connect with their customers, to know their frequently complex orders, and to essentially be the face of the business. “These people develop a relationship with these folks—when they come in, they know what these folks want. So it’s better for the company, it’s better for the customers, when these folks stay in place,” he said. 

“It’s not too late. Heine Brothers’ is a pillar of our community and they can voluntarily recognize this union today and make sure that these workers have a seat at the table now.”

Kentucky state Sen. Morgan McGarvey,

Bush agrees and thinks that it’s particularly ridiculous for critics to oppose unionizing the service industry in Louisville, which has over 60,000 service industry jobs and where tourism brings in $3.2 billion a year. “That’s very silly for a city that’s built on restaurants and bars and service workers,” said Bush. “I am 28 years old and I work as a barista, and it’s a choice because I love my job and it can definitely be a full-time, long-term job.”

Smith sees no difference between the Heine Brothers’ workers and any other group of workers who are trying to unionize. But he has been particularly impressed by the tenacity they have shown in their organizing and in pushing to file for an election, which they are confident they can win. “They have stuck with it, they have worked tirelessly to make it happen,” Smith told TRNN. “We committed to them, to stand by them, and they committed to do everything that was needed to make sure their voice was heard and that they’d have a union—and they have done it, they have stuck by that commitment.”

Smith and the organizers hope that Heine Brothers’ company leadership stop their resistance to the union and, instead, live up to the progressive ideals the company professes. This sentiment was echoed by Kentucky state Sen. Morgan McGarvey, who is the Democratic nominee for the Louisville area congressional seat, when he spoke at the July 26 press conference. “It’s not too late. Heine Brothers’ is a pillar of our community and they can voluntarily recognize this union today and make sure that these workers have a seat at the table now,” he said. 

But even if Heine Brothers’ does not choose to voluntarily recognize them, the union organizers have no intention of backing down and are confident that they will win their election. As Lindsey forcefully stated at the press conference, “We, the workers, run Heine Brothers’ Coffee. And we, the workers, deserve to have a strong and present voice in the operations of this company.” 

Molly Shah

Molly Shah is a freelance writer and social media consultant based in Berlin. Prior to moving to Germany Molly was an activist, teacher and lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow her on Twitter: @MollyOShah