Brewing Up a Cup o’ Fairness

During the last few months, Ithaca College senior Briana Kerensky spent lots of time at the Workers’ Center watching and listening to the goings on around here, intending to write a feature article on us. That time listening led to what is going to become a few stories about our work. Here’s the first in her series, published in the Ithaca College magazine Buzzsaw Haircut.

Brewing Up a Cup o’ Fairness

The story of a coffee shop’s struggle to unionize

By Briana Kerensky

In a world where Starbucks has wrapped its grande double mocha latte-coated tentacles around society,  Ithaca Coffee Company has somehow managed to continue being two things that beverage giant is not: local and fair trade. All of the coffees offered at their two locations are advertised as being fair trade, meaning the farmers who grow the beans, the people who harvest the beans and the people who roast the beans are treated with respect and paid decent wages.

But somewhere along the production line, just before that hot cup of coffee lovingly grown by Guatemalans, Ethiopians or Kenyans makes it to the customers’ hands, one group of people fell out of the fair trade loop: Ithacans. The employees of Ithaca Coffee Company found themselves in a precarious situation: How could they get the pay and respect they deserved without hurting one of the last local coffee shops in the city?

Compared to other shops in the area, such as College Town Bagels and Gimme! Coffee, Ithaca Coffee Company pays their workers the least. Gimme! starts their employees at $8.50 an hour, and College Town Bagels at $9. Both stores also give their workers free food and breaks. Even Starbucks (supposedly) gives their baristas health care coverage.

Meanwhile, in February 2010, the baristas working at Ithaca Coffee Company were only earning minimum wage: $7.25 an hour, with no perks. The employees also only sporadically received skill assessments and breaks and had trouble getting schedules in order. Sometimes they were left waiting for promised raises that never came.

Instead, the baristas at the downtown Ithaca Coffee Company location worked without management or supervision, overseeing the care of the coffee shop and doing everything from opening in the morning and locking up at night to placing product orders. They were doing the work of a manager and getting no respect or compensation for it.

“People are working 39 and a half hours, and they’re calling it part-time,” said Pete Meyers, the executive director of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center.

When some of the baristas couldn’t take it anymore and felt that the only way they could increase the lines of communication was by forming a union, they sought help from the Tompkins County Workers’ Center. Since 2003, the Workers’ Center has provided advocacy and support services to anyone treated unfairly at work. But this was the first time they were dealing with a situation quite like this.

“This is the very first time in our history that we’re involved with a union,” Meyers said. “This is becoming more our thing because people want to deal with grassroots, not big organizations.”

The Workers’ Center let the baristas use their space for meetings, helped file paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board, found a lawyer and even made buttons for the group, which called themselves the Tompkins County Coffee Workers Union. But no one involved wanted to take Ithaca Coffee Company’s name through the mud. With the recent influx of coffee chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, every local shop in Ithaca deserves all the customers it can get.

“Are we willing to ruin their name and have people start not shopping there anymore?” asked Josh Geldzahler, a barista at Ithaca Coffee Company for almost a year. “I want to fight with integrity. This is the heaviest shit I have ever dealt with. I don’t want to look back on this six months from now and think, ‘How did this all happen?’”

Geldzahler never meant for himself to be the leader of the Coffee Workers Union, but the role just kind of fell in his lap.

“I love this kind of job, and I love coffee,” he said. “I don’t really want to be a leader, but someone needs to talk tough and create an opening statement.”

When the owner of Ithaca Coffee Company, Julie Crowley, was first presented with the idea of an organized group of baristas, managers and clerks, she did not take it well. She cut employees’ hours and would hold mandatory meetings to talk about the risks of joining a union. Every time the baristas tried to talk to her, she would schedule meetings for when she knew she would be out of town.

Linda Holzbaur, a community organizer for the Workers’ Center, was frustrated by the whole situation.

“Apparently fair trade coffee only goes as far as the farm.”

Not all of the people working at the coffee shop were willing to put down their milk steamers and join a union. Some just disapproved of unions in general, while others were afraid of losing their job. In the end, it was going to come down to a vote. If the members of the Tompkins County Coffee Workers Union could get a majority of employees to vote “yes,” on April 21 in a National Labor Relations Board-sponsored election, then the union would get the power to be the bargaining representative for all of the coffee shop’s employees.

But at the last minute, on April 18, the Tompkins County Coffee Workers Union held a press conference. They changed their minds and decided to put a halt to the election. They’re a grassroots effort; slapping the owner of Ithaca Coffee Company with demands from a large, national organization just didn’t seem right. It was more likely to exacerbate the problem than help the union achieve their goals.

“I don’t want this to be like, another greedy business owner goes down,” Geldzahler said. “I want this to be about fair trade, from beans to cup,”

The Tompkins County Coffee Workers Union still exists, but as more of a way for the baristas and clerks to express their concerns and interests than as an actual union. They’ve focused their efforts from the election to a local campaign to get more community members involved with the ongoing fair trade efforts of the Ithaca Coffee Company.

And as for Crowley? Well, she’s begun to make some changes. The employees are now allowed to take breaks and can know their schedules further in advance. There’s also an “open-door policy” for employees, meaning they can talk to the boss about their concerns and she won’t leave town every time they stop by her office. But if things go wrong again, the Tompkins County Coffee Workers Union still holds the right to have an election.

From bean to cup, it looks like the Ithaca Coffee Company is finally beginning to brew some real fair trade coffee for their customers.


Briana Kerensky is a senior journalism major who doesn’t even drink coffee. E-mail her at