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Heine Brothers contract proves workers 'can raise standards when they come together'

Berry Craig
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AFT Local 9005

Louisville-based Heine Brothers Coffee Co. workers have won more than a union contract.

They've earned a niche in Bluegrass State labor history. “This is the first time in Kentucky that I’m aware of where tipped service workers have unionized and gotten a contract,” said Tim Morris, Greater Louisville Central Labor Council executive director. “We are tremendously excited.”

So is Alexis Hardesty, organizing and political director at the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers 32BJ/Service Employees International Union of Kentucky, which the Heine Brothers workers voted to join.

“We’re thrilled at what folks have accomplished here, and we hope this agreement sets an example for other workers about how much they can raise standards when they come together," Hardesty said. "We’re thankful for the support from our community that got workers to this point, and we hope the Louisville community continues to embrace Heine Brothers as a progressive employer with union standards.”

Said Bill Londrigan, Kentucky State AFL-CIO president: "Among the more than 250 Starbucks stores and numerous other service operations that have been organized, this is the first time--that we are aware of--that a first contract has been actually achieved." (Three Starbucks stores in Louisville and one across the Ohio River in Clarksville, Ind., voted to unionize. As of December, Starbucks has not agreed to a contract with workers at any of the unionized stores nationwide, according to CNBC.) 

"For most unions, whether they are in the service industry or other industries, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the lack of an initial contract," Londrigan said.

After union and Heine Brothers representatives agreed to a four-year-contract earlier in March, the requisite majority of the membership voted to accept the pact.  

The 232-member-strong union and the company jointly announced the ratification of the contract whose provisions include a 10-percent pay hike for starting baristas in the first year, followed by an average 4.3 percent boost over the following three years, according to Hardesty. 

She acknowledged that percentages might not mean much to low-wage workers. "The minimum for baristas is $12.75 an hour," Hardesty said. "But it will be nearly $17 an hour in four years." No union member will make less than $15 an hour by 2027. 

Hardesty said workers had been getting two weeks of paid time off annually. They'll receive another week of PTO under the contract.  

The agreement also has a provision for resolving disputes through a labor-management committee and a grievance process that includes binding arbitration.

Heine Brothers operates 16 stores in Louisville and two more--in New Albany and Jeffersonville, Ind. Hardesty said the Heine Brothers union is evidently the second largest coffee shop workers' union in the country now operating under a master agreement that covers multiple locations. 

The workers voted in the union last September. Contract negotiations lasted a little more than four months, according to Hardesty. That's a shorter than usual period for a newly formed union to get a contract from its employer, Morris said. 

“Typically, companies draw out negotiations for months and months, but there is so much energy around union organizing in the Greater Louisville area [click here and here]," Morris said. 

"Based on our analysis of 391 records of first contracts signed since 2005, the mean number of days it takes newly unionized employers and their newly organized workers to ratify a first contract has grown to 465 days," wrote Robert Combs of Bloomberg Law.

Hardesty, Londrigan and Morris hope that the Heine Brothers contract will be followed by other contracts at unionized service sector stores in and around Kentucky's largest city. 

Hardesty said union workers and management at the five-store Sunergos Coffee Co. are expected to start contract negotiations next week. The workers voted to affiliate with Hardesty's union in January.

Historically, unions had found it difficult to organize low-wage service sector workers. Hardesty said the successful union drives in Louisville, especially in coffee shops, are based on multiple factors.

"A lot of the workers are young and very well educated given the industry," she said. "Also, during the [COVID] pandemic, they were treated as disposable after being talked about as essential employees."

She said when coffee shop workers contacted the union "we anticipated that many of them would be leaving soon. There was some turnover but a lot of them are trans or members of the Queer community in general and when you talk to them, they'll tell you one reason why they stay in these coffee shop jobs is because they feel their identity will not make them feel unsafe among their fellow workers."

Morris said the contract at Heine Brothers means not only a better life for the workers and their families "but also for future generations of workers. We are tremendously proud to support them and will continue to support them.”