Unions are back.
At a time of rising economic inequality and inflation — and fresh from experiences during the height of the pandemic that left some employees feeling like expendable commodities while giving others a taste of better working conditions when offices were emptied — American workers are increasingly turning to unions.
According to the National Labor Relations Board, in fiscal year 2022, petitions for union representation were up 53% from fiscal year 2021 and were at the highest point since 2016.
Meanwhile, 71% of Americans approve of unions according to recent polling by Gallup, representing the highest level of union support since 1965.
Those national trends are also being seen here in Louisville, with workers from a diverse range of industries organizing into unions.
As of the time of writing, workers from Louisville businesses have filed 12 union representation petitions with the NLRB’s Cincinnati regional office so far in 2022, up from four in 2021 and six in 2020.
“I think that a tighter job market made people feel less risk averse or less afraid of retaliation, so more willing to try to better their working conditions,” said Ariana Levinson, a labor law professor at UofL’s Brandeis School of Law. “I think that people just want to to be treated with dignity and there’s a lot of emulation going on.”
While there has been a boom in unionization efforts in Louisville, there has also been, for the most part, pushback from employers, who have largely demanded employees vote rather than voluntarily recognize unions.
Amid the local and national increase in unions, LEO Weekly took a look at the status of several recent Louisville unionization efforts and what led workers to organize.
In March of this year, workers at the Starbucks store on Factory Lane in the East End announced that they intended to unionize under Workers United (an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union), writing in a letter to the coffee giant’s CEO that they felt voiceless and could no longer “wait on the company to fix itself.”
Since that unionization push was announced, three more Starbucks stores in the Louisville area — two in Kentucky and one across the Ohio River in Clarksville, Indiana — have also announced their intent to organize.
Fern Potter, a worker at the Factory Lane branch, said they contacted union organizers after seeing other Starbucks stores across the country unionize.
“I think the number one factor for everyone and their decision to unite was the recognition of the fact that the company doesn’t care about us,” they said. “And they make that abundantly clear with how they treat us.”
Since a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York became the first to unionize in December of last year, more than 200 Starbucks across the country have organized.
Potter, 19, said that harassment of staff — both by customers and co-workers — was something they wanted more protections from. They also described employees surviving paycheck to paycheck, struggling to financially get by. They added that they felt working at Starbucks weighed negatively on the mental health of many employees.
“One of the factors behind that is we’re just not treated like people, we’re treated like a commodity,” they said. “We’re treated only as good as the value of our labor is to them.”
Factory Lane store workers voted to unionize in May. Potter said they recently had their first bargaining session with Starbucks, but they said it was not productive.
Potter said other Starbucks in the Louisville area were looking into organizing, but declined to name them.
In September, Heine Brothers’ Coffee workers in the Louisville area voted to unionize.
According to the Service Employees International Union 32BJ branch spokesperson Emily Walker, more than 200 workers from 17 Heine Brothers’ stores in the Louisville area voted to unionize, making it the largest barista bargaining unit in the country behind Colectivo Coffee, a chain of coffee shops in Illinois and Wisconsin.
The Heine Brothers’ union’s first bargaining date is set for Nov. 16, Walker added.
Jonathan Musselwhite, 40, started working at Heine Brothers’ in 2003, passing through many roles in the company including barista, store manager and now, a warehouse associate at the company’s Portland headquarters. While he wasn’t involved in the initial organizing push, he felt it was important to back the union when he found out about it.
“I chose to support the union because it just seems I owe it to everyone else that I had worked with and do work with now to help make the company a better company,” he said.
Musselwhite added: “Living wages, paid sick leave and fair scheduling practices are the primary things that we’re seeking to change, to improve.”
Sunergos barista Clove Harrington, 23, told LEO that employees were motivated to unionize by the wave of coffee shop unions both here in Louisville and across the country.
“It was seeing all of these other baristas all over the country standing up for their rights and what they deserve that made us feel like we could do the same thing and that we deserved to do the same thing,” they said. “And I think it’s just: Working people have had enough, especially in these low-paying jobs with horrible work conditions and not a lot of protection. It’s just time to change things.”
According to Harrington, Sunergos baristas filed for an election in late September but had yet to reach an agreement on an election date with the company.
Sunergos currently has four stores in the Louisville area employing 42 baristas, according to Harrington.
They said they thought of quitting soon after they started working at Sunergos, realizing that they would not be able to survive on an $8.25 an hour starting wage. But determined to continue working in coffee — and feeling a camaraderie with co-workers — they said they decided to stay and try to make their workplace better.
“I felt a commitment to myself and also to my co-workers in order to make Sunergos a better place,” they said. “Because at the end of the day, I love working in coffee and I don’t want to leave this industry. I just think there needs to be a lot of drastic changes and a lot of things improved in order for it to be a sustainable career, a sustainable job, for all of us.”
It’s not just workers in the service industry who are unionizing.
After the Pulitzer Prize-winning Courier Journal lost more than 30 staff members over the course of two years, remaining newsroom employees announced in August that they would be unionizing.
“Unit members believe that Gannett, the company that owns The Courier Journal, must be held accountable for the staff bleed during the pandemic and chronically low wages at the paper,” read part of an Aug. 30 Courier Journal Guild press release. “Thirty-four staffers have left The Courier Journal over the last two years alone, leaving fewer eyes on community issues that readers care about.”
Since the union was announced, several more journalists have left the paper.
The announcement came shortly after Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the United States, initiated a new round of layoffs. Last year, Gannett shut down the Courier Journal’s printing press. And this year, the company stopped publishing an in-print Saturday paper and sold the Courier Journal’s downtown headquarters.
The paper won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for their coverage of controversial pardons made by former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin as he left office. In 2021, the paper was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its reporting on the March 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor.
In the August press release announcing the union, Courier Journal food reporter Dahlia Ghabour said: “No one who works full-time at this paper, or any paper, should have to work a second job to make ends meet. All of us work incredibly hard and it’s beyond time we demand equitable pay and benefits that support quality of life for our staff.”
Then-education reporter and current politics reporter Olivia Krauth echoed that.
“I don’t want to have to choose between the career that I love, my home state and having some sense of financial security,” said Krauth, according to the press release.
The Courier Journal Guild asked Gannett to voluntarily recognize the union, saying they had a “supermajority of the newsroom’s eligible staff” on board. However, Gannett did not recognize the union, forcing a formal vote. Union votes are scheduled to be tallied by the NLRB’s Cincinnati office on Nov. 18.
According to the Pew Research Center, the United States lost 40,000 print journalism jobs between 2008 and 2020 amid a corresponding death of local newspapers. The result is overlooked issues and the growth of “news deserts” — both of which contribute to an environment in which it’s easier for misinformation and disinformation to proliferate. (LEO Weekly is not immune to the turbulence in the industry: The paper was recently informed by its corporate ownership that the number of editorial staff would be reduced to three.)
While other Louisville unions were born out of grievances, that was not the case at Butchertown restaurant Pizza Lupo, according to union member Katie Barry.
“I’ve worked in the service industry for a few years, and what drew me to Pizza Lupo is the very clear care and empathy for employees and also the guests that come in the door,” she said. “I’ve noticed in my time serving and working that there’s a big difference between corporate entities and small businesses. And Lupo embodies what a small business seeks to have: clear communications, guidelines, a really great product to put out there and excellent employees to put the product out.”
When a colleague approached Barry about unionizing, she was all in. While she didn’t have the kinds of grievances people at other unionizing Louisville workplaces did, Pizza Lupo was growing on the back of its own popularity and she wanted to ensure that there were resources and processes available to support staff and address the needs of employees.
On Oct. 29, Pizza Lupo employees wrote their management a letter about their intent to unionize and inviting them to voluntarily recognize the union. While it’s common for companies to rebuff these letters and demand an NLRB vote while discouraging employees from joining a union, Pizza Lupo took a different route and recognized the union in an Oct. 31 letter.
In an email to LEO Weekly, Pizza Lupo co-owner Sarah Balliet said that the restaurant’s management was “pro-union” and had always sought to take the staff’s needs into consideration when making decisions.
“We are aware of the biases that exist around unions, but employees have a right to organize and we would never stand in the way of that,” she said. “We’ve simply agreed to listen with an open mind and we hope to grow the restaurant while maintaining the best interests of everyone involved. We’re proud of the environment we provide, and we are always looking for ways to improve. It feels natural to include our employees in decisions that affect them.”
Pizza Lupo organized under Restaurant Workers United, a union that began operations in 2020. The Butchertown pizza shop is the union’s first foothold in Louisville.
“Be on the lookout, because it could be someone else’s restaurant that’s next to join a union and create this great change. It’s a huge deal,” said Barry. “We’re all really proud of it.”
Attorneys from the Louisville-Jefferson County Public Defender Corporation voted to unionize in a 32-5 vote in January, citing “unmanageable” caseloads and high turnover.
However, despite the vote, public defenders in the union and their International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 369 attorney say that negotiations have not yet been productive.
Additionally, they filed charges with the NLRB over the Public Defender Corporation’s initial refusal to bargain at all — or to provide information related to wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment to the union.
IBEW attorney Ben Basil said the Public Defender Corporation eventually entered negotiations, but only after charges were filed.
“That’s not enough to get them out of legal trouble,” he said. “It’d be like if I stole your wallet and wouldn’t give it back to you and then the police came and then I was like ‘Well, he can have it.’ Too late, I’ve already done the thing. That’s kind of where we are.”
An NLRB hearing to determine whether the Public Defender Corporation violated the National Labor Relations Act was held in early November. Basil said he expects a judgement in the case sometime next year.
Speaking to LEO Weekly in September, public defender and union member Blake Gerstner said in his first year as a public defender, he handled nearly 800 cases. He said he had 266 active cases at the time he spoke to LEO.
“I don’t think there’s an attorney in my office who believes that they are fully meeting their ethical, their constitutional, obligations to each of these indigent clients,” he said. “I’ve brought these concerns directly to my supervisors: I do not feel like I can represent 266 [cases] at a time in a totally competent manner.” •
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