With the possibility of 340,000 Teamsters going on strike next month at United Parcel Service (UPS) seeming more and more likely, the world will be looking to Louisville, Kentucky, where UPS headquarters and UPS Worldport, the largest sorting and logistics facility in America, are located. With over 25,000 employees, 10,000 of whom are members of Teamsters Local 89, UPS is by far the city’s largest employer. If the Teamsters and UPS do not reach an agreement by July 31, when the current contract is set to expire, the picket line outside these facilities could be the largest the city has seen in decades. At a local rally held on July 18, Brian Hamm, vice president of Local 89, spoke about the impact a strike at UPS would have on the city: “If we go on strike, Louisville will shut down,” he said.
Consistent with the national trend, Louisville’s union membership rates have been on a steady decline since the 1980s, with some fluctuations in recent years. In 1989, 14.8% of workers in Kentucky were union members; after falling to nearly 8% during the Great Recession, and falling again to its lowest point on record in 2021 (7.2%), union density numbers have see-sawed between 10% and 12% over the past decade. But at one point, Louisville was well known for being a hotbed of union activity, even earning the nickname “Strike City” due to the militancy of many unions in the city and their demonstrated willingness to strike for better wages and conditions. Over the past two years, though, there have been indications that Louisville is working to earn its nickname back: union activity has been growing steadily, with workers at Sysco striking this spring and unionization efforts led by workers from the public defender’s office, Half Price Books, the Courier Journal newsroom, and Trader Joe’s all taking place within the past year.
Amid this resurgence in labor organizing, Louisville’s coffee scene has become a perhaps-unexpected hotbed of union activity. Facing store closures and other forms of alleged union busting, workers at local coffee shop chain Heine Brothers won a hard-fought union battle in March of this year, signing a new contract with the chain and securing higher wages and more paid time off for their baristas. Moreover, workers at seven Louisville area Starbucks locations have also voted to unionize since 2022. These rank-and-file struggles at other cafes across the city helped inspire another local Louisville chain, Sunergos, to unionize their five locations in January.
“Louisville has so many coffee shops—there’s like a coffee shop on every corner in Louisville—and I think they all need to be in a union if they are not already,” Sunergos barista Clove Harrington told TRNN. “The Heine Brothers thing was very exciting, because they kind of helped us have the courage to also do that… Starbucks kind of started this national movement of baristas organizing. I’ve been a barista since 2017 and I’ve thought about unions before, but I definitely didn’t think that this is something that baristas can do and should do. But Starbucks kind of proved that it is, that baristas also deserve a living wage and deserve rights… So, to see Starbucks do it, and then to see Heine Brothers follow suit… it gave us the jumpstart to do the same thing.”
While workers at Heine Brothers were able to secure a contract, none of the local Starbucks unions, nor the Sunergos Union, have done so yet. So on July 17, these unions joined together and held a one-day strike outside their respective locations in the city. While a cross-chain strike might seem unusual, workers in both unions thought it was important to show their commitment to each other. “The reason we went to [Sunergos] was just to help show them solidarity, because, for one thing, we are all baristas, so we are all trying to fight for the same things no matter what company we are working for,” said Sean Sluder, a Starbucks worker who joined the picket line. “And then, beyond that, we are all workers, so anything that one of us gets done, or any battle that one of us wins, is going to help the other ones, because now we can say, ‘Well, they did it here,’ especially [when it comes to] smaller [businesses] Starbucks is a huge corporation, but if smaller businesses can cover the expenses, then there is no reason that Starbucks can’t!”
The strikes coincided with Starbucks Workers United’s nationwide bus tour. Workers and organizers have been traveling to various Starbucks locations to raise awareness about Starbucks’ response to the historic wave of unionization efforts at stores around the country, which Sen. Bernie Sanders called “the most aggressive and illegal union-busting campaign in the modern history of our country.” The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has issued over 93 complaints against the company on charges ranging from retaliation against union organizers to illegally refusing to bargain with the chapters.
Sunergos also faces allegations of union busting; so far, the Sunergos Workers Union has filed two unfair labor practice charges against their employer with the NLRB. One of the allegations centers around the May firing of Ashley Ray, a manager at Sunergos’ Preston location, where the union organizing effort at the company initially began. “Upper management’s attitude toward Preston kind of changed [after the union announcement],” Ray told TRNN. “They were constantly pointing out things that people were doing wrong at Preston that they weren’t actually doing wrong, and I would always stand up for them. Like my boss would say, ‘This person is rude, this person has a bad attitude,’ and I would say, ‘I’ve never seen that from them, can you give an example?’ and he would have a hard time being specific about it.”
The company claimed Ray’s firing was related to an alleged violation of the employee discount policy. However, Ray believes it was their reluctance to discipline union organizers that led to their termination. “There were two people that my boss asked me to discipline, and basically the reason he gave was hospitality. It was really just misunderstandings [in] both situations, so I kept pushing back on disciplining them,” said Ray. “The next time I met with him [after pushing back], he gave me a discipline form for the store being dirty in certain areas and people clocking in five minutes late. So then I felt like I had to go along with it.”
In addition to Ray’s firing, the union has also filed a ULP charge against Sunergos for refusal to engage in good-faith bargaining. “I’m on the bargaining committee at Sunergos, and at one of the negotiation sessions for our contract the owners told us point blank that they are not going to agree to anything until the end… if you know how negotiation works, you just go through one article at a time, and once you agree to something, you move it to the side and say, ‘We can move on from that,” said Harrington. “[Their actions made] it extremely hard to negotiate in general, because you don’t know what you’ve agreed to so far (so how do you know what progress you are making?)” Moreover, according to Harrington, “it doesn’t feel like they take us seriously and value the work that we are putting in for this cause, and for each other, and for everyone who works at Sunergos.”
Kelsey Combs, another Sunergos barista, says that the company’s refusal to bargain in good faith led to the strike action on July 17. “We won our election back in January, so it is… seven months later and the company still hasn’t come back with one meaningful counter-proposal for us—after… four or five [bargaining] sessions now,” said Combs. “We are all getting a little antsy and fed up that the company just doesn’t seem to want to take us seriously and negotiate with us, so, yeah, we thought the opportunity was right to strike.”
Sunergos baristas are especially eager to get a contract given how low their pay is. “Our wages are incredibly low, they are the lowest in the city, in Louisville, that we know of. Our hourly wage is only $8.25 for starting pay,” said Combs. Workers are supposed to make up for these low wages through tips; however, as Combs points out, and as anyone who has counted on tips as a key part of their income can attest, this is a precarious and unpredictable way for workers to achieve financial stability. “It’s so hard to budget that and tips fluctuate so much—it really depends on things like the weather and what days you work and what shift you work and… whether you’re in a good mood or not that day.”
Dealing with these kinds of hardships every day has led these coffee shop workers to not only find cross-chain solidarity with their counterparts around the city, but solidarity with all workers who are fighting for better working conditions. While their numbers may be much smaller than UPS Teamsters, they believe they are in the same fight. “I’m really excited to see UPS go on strike, too, because workers are just fed up,” said Harrington. “We want to say, ‘You cannot exploit our labor anymore. Your business does not exist without us who do the work day to day.”.
“I just think, as time has gone on, people have just realized that we’re getting screwed, everybody, it’s not just us,” said Sluder. “Maybe at first people saw the baristas and thought, ‘Oh, they’re so entitled,’ or whatever, but then you go to work every day and your boss screws you over… [and] the owner can buy a new vacation home every year and you’re stuck trying to pay your electric bill. I think people are just tired of it.”