Ithaca Coffee Company and the Tompkins County Coffee Workers Union: Fair Trade, from Bean to the Cup: An Update

[Editors Note: On February 21, 2010, a majority, 8 of 11 at the time, nonmanagerial workers at the Ithaca Coffee Company signed a petition indicating interest in starting a union at their workplace. In late March, the union submitted this petition to the National Labor Relations Board to trigger an election. In mid-April, the organizing workers decided to call off the election. What follows is the story of one of the organized workers who is choosing to stay anonymous for strategic purposes.]

The Tompkins County Coffee Workers Union is a small grassroots union comprised of the majority of the rank and file workers of Ithaca Coffee Company, plus a few new friends that we’ve gained along the way.

Our Union started with a whisper? “I know I could get fired just for saying this, but? What if we had a union?”

New questions sprung from that first one: What if we had power to make sure our grievances wouldn’t be ignored? If we all pointed out inefficiencies, could they be fixed? What if we stood up for each other? Could we get better pay? These questions became urgent when a series of firings, made our job security unsure. We came to the Tompkins County Workers’ Center to seek guidance and support.

A triumphant feeling filled the night when we officially started the Union, as we realized we were exercising a powerful democratic right, which offered the possibility for positive change, and respect at our jobs. Unfortunately, Ithaca Coffee Company’s ownership refused to accept a nearly unanimous representation of workers asking, in person, to be voluntarily recognized as a Union. This left us no other option but to submit a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) petition for an election, in order to verify that the Union represented a majority of the workers, which would legally compel the owners to communicate with us.

After filing the NLRB petition the workers faced a daily barrage of pressure tactics to stop the Union. Ownership hired a union-busting lawyer, who advised waging a formulaic anti-union campaign, which only proved to most of the workers that our intentions were being completely misunderstood. Propaganda titled “The Union Is Lying To You” seemed ridiculous to the small group of workers who had themselves founded the Union. The election process itself became excruciatingly long, as our majority dwindled because it left so much time for many new employees to be hired, who were overwhelmed with anti-union propaganda.

We counteracted these anti-union attacks with a positive campaign strategy of our own. Avoiding pickets and boycotts, we urged the community to wear buttons in support of our cause, to visit our stores and to show the ownership support for a unionized coffee shop, that shouldn’t interfere with the workers’ choice to collectively organize. Seeing the outpouring of support from customers wearing our buttons helped us to stay strong in the face of vicious union busting. We are extremely grateful to everyone who wears a button.

From the very beginning, the strategy of the Union has been very sensitive not to overshoot our goals. We want to see Ithaca Coffee Company strengthened by a Union of empowered workers. We want our business to be successful and we believe we should have a stake in that success.

Our many supporters may have been surprised to hear the news of the Union’s withdrawal of the petition only days before the scheduled election. This was a calculated decision, made with our lawyer Richard Furlong, whom the Worker’s Center found to fight at our side. Through the election process we learned the shortcomings of the NLRB process, the hard way. Ultimately the largest flaw in the NLRB system was the months or years of hearings, which would have been required in order to stop the ownership from stuffing the ballot box with the votes of supervisors, managers and complete strangers. This convinced us that we needed to find an alternative strategy. We withdrew from the NLRB process in order to preserve the integrity of our union, and to build an organization which could be copied – by other groups of workers – following our example. We can continue to work towards improvements at Ithaca Coffee Company, without governmental certification.

We believe in the Tompkins County Workers’ Center’s idea of the community union, which could revolutionize the existing model of a labor union for America’s low-wage service workers. This depends on the active involvement of the entire community to support emerging Unions. The voice of a small group of workers is greatly amplified when they have the backing of the community. We imagine a standard for Fair Trade that could be applied to all the coffee workers in Ithaca. It’s a new ethical shopping standard: Fair Trade from Bean to Cup.