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Baristas accuse Coffee Tree Roasters of doubling down in fight against unionization

The owners of the Pittsburgh-area chain, The Coffee Tree Roasters, have intensified their effort to thwart a unionization campaign their staff launched in December, according to employees of the company.

The workers have complained of inadequate staffing, low wages and insufficient COVID-19 safety measures. They also accuse the chain of firing a barista due to his involvement in the unionization effort. Such moves prompted the union that represents the workers to file charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

But instead of trying to resolve the dispute, several current and former baristas said Wednesday that Coffee Tree has enlisted the help of anti-union consultants. The baristas said the consultants have engaged them in lengthy conversations in an attempt to persuade the employees to drop their push for a union.

“Given the perpetual understaffing, the thought of a 15-minute break during an eight-hour shift is absurd — unless your break is to have an hour-long conversation with a union buster,” Helene Tracey, a barista at Coffee Tree’s Shadyside location, said Wednesday.

Jordy Vargas also works at the Shadyside store, and he said that relatives of Coffee Tree owner Jean Swoope visited the shop in recent days and surreptitiously filmed workers.

Calls to the chain’s five locations went unanswered Wednesday.

Statewide labor leaders and state and local officeholders were quick to rally behind the baristas when the controversy erupted last week. On Wednesday, about a dozen officials, including Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale, joined the workers for a news conference outside the company’s Squirrel Hill storefront.

“Something's happening all throughout America, not just in Pennsylvania, folks. Something's happening where workers are standing up for themselves. You've seen it. You've read about it. You've seen it on TV,” Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Frank Snyder said, referring in part to a wave of work stoppages last fall — a phenomenon dubbed “Striketober.”

At Coffee Tree, baristas are seeking to form a union with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1776. They announced their intent days before Christmas to hold a union election. Liam Tinker, who worked as a barista at Coffee Tree’s Shadyside and Squirrel Hill shops, said he was fired a day after appearing in an online video publicizing the union campaign.

On Wednesday, he acknowledged that he had arrived to a shift the same day “more than a few minutes late." But he contended that it was the first time in nine months that he’d been that tardy. In fact, he previously said he’d never been written up before and that his termination was inconsistent with how other baristas had been treated.

Tinker said Wednesday that a Coffee Tree employees union would improve the customer experience, especially at a time when businesses are struggling to meet labor needs.

“Overworked, poorly-trained and overwhelmed baristas make bad coffee,” he said. “So the better workplace our unionization movement strives to achieve will be felt not just in our lives but in your lattes, too.”

Vargas, one of the Shadyside baristas, added, “We look forward to making this investment not only in ourselves but future Coffee Tree Roasters baristas as well. It's time that this industry stops relying on high turnover to exploit human beings without pushback.”

Vargas said the baristas received more than 2,000 emails of support after announcing their unionization effort in December.

Democratic Pittsburgh City Councilor Corey O’Connor said constituents in his district, which covers Coffee Tree’s Squirrel Hill location, have a stake in the matter.

Standing outside the chain’s Squirrel Hill location, O’Connor said, “I've had meeting after meeting here because this is a great place.”

“But,” he added, “they are making the wrong decision here. … What they're doing is hurting our neighborhood. They're hurting our community.”

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