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Louisville-area baristas go on strike, citing coffee companies' failure to negotiate union contracts

"We are not making any coffee today to send Sunergos a message: it's time to stop stalling."

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Coffee shop employees in Louisville gathered Monday for a one-day strike, protesting what they described as Starbucks and Sunergos' refusal to negotiate contract agreements.

Union baristas across Kentuckiana called on the companies to boost wages and improve jobs, so employees can keep us with rising rent and other costs.

“This felt like the next best tactic because meeting at the table clearly wasn’t working," one Sunergos barista said Monday. 

Employees said they are protesting the coffee companies' refusal to negotiate contract agreements with baristas and retaliation against union supporters, according to a news release from Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Sunergos workers voted to organize their union in January of 2023. Starting in May of 2022, baristas at several Louisville and southern Indiana Starbucks stores have voted to form unions. 

Baristas said they filed Unfair Labor Practice charges alleging both companies violated their federally-guaranteed freedom to organize unions and collectively negotiate contracts for their wages, benefits, schedules, and other job standards.

"We are not making any coffee today to send Sunergos a message: it's time to stop stalling. It's time to sit down with us to reach an agreement that respects our work and invests in the baristas who make Sunergos’ growth and success possible," Bekah Ryherd, Sunergos Coffee barista and member of the union negotiating committee, said.

Starbucks released a statement, saying in part, "Workers United should demonstrate the same commitment to bargaining as they do to rallies, and now a multi-city bus tour. Even though we have attempted to schedule bargaining for hundreds of stores, Workers United has only met Starbucks at the table to progress negotiations for 10 stores."

Starbucks said it respects the employees in Louisville who chose to exercise their lawful right to protest and petition on Monday, without fear of reprisal or retaliation.

According to Starbucks, the company has made efforts to negotiate with union representatives, but they aren't showing up to the meetings. Starbucks says Workers Unites has not made an effort to bargain for five out of the six stories they represent in Kentucky.

"Looking forward, we remain ready to progress in-person negotiations with the unions certified to represent our partners, and we encourage Workers United to respond to proposed dates for future store bargaining sessions," Starbucks's statement read.

According to an SEIU release, both Sunergos and Starbucks have failed to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with their baristas despite months of attempts by workers to make progress toward a contract.

“The changes we want Starbucks to make are reasonable. We want respect for the work we put in. We want to build a true partnership between baristas and management. We want better jobs that give us a fair return on the hours and effort we put into making Starbucks an incredibly profitable corporation," Sean Sluder, Starbucks barista at the Elizabethtown location, said.

There was also a rally on Monday at noon at the Mazzoli Federal Building in downtown Louisville followed by a march to picket at Sunergos Coffee on 5th Street.

Outside of that location, baristas Devon Crawley said Razija Mehinovic said they feel baristas are underpaid, and their base pay plus tips don't add up to a living wage. 

“If you are going to partake in something daily like coffee, and you want a really good latte, it shouldn't be a radical idea to pay the people that are making that a living wage," Mehinovic said. 

In recent weeks, union talks at UPS have been at the forefront in Louisville, but Professor Ariana Levinson, from the UofL Brandeis School of Law, said union efforts among service industry workers are spreading. 

She said that's due to a number of factors from the pandemic to inflation, to a changing workforce. 

"You're getting not only Millennials but Gen Z in the workforce and they're a lot less willing to spend their whole time working and just making ends meet," Levinson said. 

Levinson added within an individual business, higher unionization rates can start to benefit even non-union workers. She said the same principle applies when unionization efforts spread to different companies. 

"Once you get to a certain tipping point, you have enough people unionized, then all boats rise," she said. 

WHAS11 reached out to Sunergos, which didn't have a comment on the strike. The company did say not all of its stores were closed Monday. 

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