Photo By Mark Roessler
After months of meetings and planning, early last May, Kerry Brown and 15 others—a majority of his fellow baristas—were ready to confront Bob Lowry and Ken Majka, owners of Rao’s Coffee Cafés in Amherst and Northampton.
“[W]e would like to declare ourselves a union working with the United Auto Workers Local 2322,” Brown wrote in a script he’d prepared for the meeting, “and to have you immediately acknowledge us as such and begin collectively bargaining with us to find a reasonable way forward.”
They planned to meet at a bar in Amherst. Brown’s script included stage direction: “At this point, one by one we toss our [signed union] cards across the table to collect in the center.”
Following this, he planned to say, “I will give you my word that we will bargain in good faith, but I will also tell you that we are not fools. We have covered our backs and our fronts, and to highlight this I wish to direct your attention to the UAW lawyer in the corner, as well as the six members of the local press who could report tomorrow …on your willingness to proceed.”
He added as an annotation at the end, “I’m not sure what happens next, maybe Ken punches me in the nose.”
As it turned out, it was Kerry Brown, alone, who presented his colleagues’ demands to Lowry and Majka. No lawyer joined them. No press. No colleagues. Little went as scripted.
“My first (and probably most fateful) error occurred when I …decided to …present the cards to Ken and Bob alone,” Brown wrote in an annotation to the pile of documents he provided the Advocate when he approached the paper to tell his story.
He returned to the fledgling union defeated. He pleaded with his fellow union supporters to abandon the cause he had been championing for six months. Lowry and Majka, he explained, ought to be given a chance to address concerns without a union.
His comrades were not impressed.
“Kerry, don’t get soft on us now, amigo,” one co-worker wrote. “Just because Ken didn’t hit you doesn’t mean this is going to work out. I still see them as the enemy. These guys don’t just give things out voluntarily.”
Brown, though, was resolute.
“[Afterwards,] I wrote an email to [the UAW organizer] and told him I was getting very drunk and withdrawing from the union,” Brown said. “And that’s what I did. I was neither invited, nor did I go to any future meetings.”
The effort to unionize continued without him. In June, the UAW lost by a vote of 7 to 9.
After defeating the union, Rao’s owners offered employees a health care plan, a retirement plan, sick days, and a regular raise schedule.
Would those changes have occurred without the union effort? Maybe so, Rao’s co-owner Bob Lowry told the Advocate: “We hadn’t had a chance to address these concerns, because [the employees] hadn’t brought them to us. Had they, it probably would have worked out the same way.”
“By all accounts,” Brown told the Advocate of the union defeat, “I was the nail in the coffin.”
Brown tried to explain why he’d been so easily swayed to abandon all he had worked to achieve: “Maybe it had to do with the look on Bob’s face, or a feeling I had—I had a bad feeling the moment I did it. I got very scared. Not for myself, but I wasn’t certain we weren’t a bit more of a paper tiger than we’d thought.”
After an awkward pause, he added, “Never send an empath to do a man’s job.”
And maybe it was just that simple. But like so much about Brown and his bungled unionizing effort, his explanation doesn’t quite ring true.
Brown’s betrayal utterly destroyed long-standing friendships and made him a pariah among local baristas. His unilateral negotiations with management could be seen as “union tampering,” Brown said, and legally, both parties could be “in trouble. That’s something that scares the shit out of me.” (Co-owner Lowry told the Advocate that he has since learned his negotiations were illegal, but at the time the union effort took him by surprise and he didn’t have a chance to seek legal counsel.)
So, why did Brown go to the press with all the gory details?
Despite his confessed mistakes, Brown continues to push the idea that some good came out of what he did. Defeated, humiliated, he remains grandiose.
“I appreciate the fact that Bob and Ken have put Rao’s at the forefront of compensating their employees fairly and providing a comprehensive benefit package,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of ways this could have gone, but as far as I know, there have been no repercussions.”
In the end, Brown still sees what he did as ultimately successful.
“At first the thing was a silly little pipe dream,” Kerry Brown told the Advocate, explaining the genesis of his union effort. “But then I got a small inheritance, built a website, and started writing. After that, the idea just grew.”
Born and raised in Northampton, Brown went to college in Indiana. After a stint traveling, he returned home and found work in a coffee shop. He shared an apartment, lived paycheck to paycheck, had no health insurance. Before working at Rao’s, Brown worked at other cafés, including Esselon Café in Hadley. After seven years as a barista, he said he knew the local industry well.
He began building the website baristaunion.org in October 2011, while working at Rao’s in Amherst. Although he earned the high end of the barista pay range ($11.50/per hour), he said, “What we were making was not commensurate to our [value.]”
Though Brown had no previous experience organizing a union and admitted that he knew very little about economics or labor history, he’d reasoned out many of the fundamentals himself.
Advocate: What made you think the time was right for a barista union?
Brown: I feel we’ve got to the point where across-the-board changes need to be made to the manufacturing industry.
Advocate: And the service industry?
Brown: I don’t think that there’s a difference between taking a piece of metal and forming it into a bumper that goes into a car that someone purchases, and someone who takes a tomato and puts it into a salad or on a hamburger. I don’t see why people who make cars should have health benefits and a retirement plan, but people who make high-priced coffee beverages make what is not quite a living wage here in the Valley. I believe being a barista is not a job, but a profession, and it should be accommodated as such.
Advocate: What would you say to someone who says you’re just serving coffee?
Brown: First and foremost, we’re not just serving a coffee, we’re probably serving thousands of coffees a day. Second of all, we’re performing a service the common person just can’t do. You can buy your own espresso machine anywhere, but no one makes a cup of coffee like a professional barista…. It’s as specialized a craft as someone who cooks.
While Brown may have worked out some of the same economic theory that many trade unions embrace, he had not yet formulated the same strategies for achieving change. He may have worked at Rao’s and dreamed about unionizing baristas, but the record shows that Kerry Brown likely was never interested in unionizing Rao’s baristas against Rao’s owners.
“[R]emember, things are awfully good for us here at Rao’s. It’s not that good at other coffee shops,” he wrote in an early email to the fledgling members many months before the UAW were involved.
“I am not against this level of success and profitability for these businesses,” he wrote in a later email. “They (effectively Bob and Ken) are keeping our bills nominally paid and food on our table. I do not wish to begrudge them their success.”
Instead of rallying against a specific person or business, Brown hoped area baristas would rally around his website and the manifesto he’d written there. He signed it with a pseudonym, identifying himself on the site as Pietro Spina, a left-wing radical from a 1930s Italian novel. He also encouraged his followers to adopt aliases. By having anonymous baristas friending his alter ego’s Facebook page, Brown hoped to form a powerful coalition that could make demands of area café owners, improving conditions for employees at places like Woodstar, Starbucks, Esselon and others.
As far as he knew, Brown’s effort to unionize baristas was the first of its kind, but both nationally and globally, employees at various Starbucks franchises, represented by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), have been attempting to negotiate for better conditions for over a decade.
Closer to home, in late 2004, workers at the former Java Hut in Sunderland turned to the IWW to contend with what they saw as unfair business practices by owners Sean and Darren Pierce. A November 18, 2004 story in UMass’ Daily Collegian reported that, according to Java Hut employees, disputes about internal safety and staffing concerns grew confrontational. When workers attempted to organize, the owners allegedly fired the two key activists and then harassed and intimidated other employees, threatening the same response should they try the same thing.
“They’ve brought some employees to tears,” one worker reportedly said about their employers.
According to complaints filed with the National Labor Rights Board and posted on the IWW website, the owners responded to the effort to unionize with “This is America and nobody is going to fucking tell me how to run my business,” and “You can’t have a union as part-time employees. We would just fire you all anyway.”
The owners denied these accusations.
“We’ve done nothing but try to run a good business,” Darren Pierce told the Collegian. He explained that the employees had chosen to leave and had handed in their resignations. “All I did was accept [them],” he said.
In 2006, the café closed. Now working as Pierce Brothers Coffee Roasting, the owners devote themselves exclusively to wholesale distribution.
Brown spent the winter of 2011-2012 trying to get his dream of a Valley-wide online barista union off the ground. After about five months of trying, when it didn’t materialize, he tried to halt the effort and disband the group.
“Basically, we really should consider a serious reevaluation of your guy’s [sic] commitment to this project,” he told his comrades in his resignation speech, “and also my (Pietro Spina’s) role in the furtherance of this cause.”
If Brown had had his way, his union dreams would have ended last March and the UAW never would have been contacted. But to his surprise, the group rejected Brown’s resignation and decided on a new course.
While Brown would continue to manage his site, others began to take leadership positions and began delegating jobs. They started putting up posters and stickers to promote their cause. One suggestion for a slogan was, “No sick days, no healthcare… who makes your coffee?”
Two weeks later, they decided to drop the fake names. Yet they continued to trust Brown, despite his obvious sympathies with Rao’s management.
“[W]e operate like a family,” he wrote of the working conditions at Rao’s shortly before confronting the owners. “We work hard/ play hard together, we pick each other up when we are down, we know most of each other’s secrets (even some of Bob and Ken’s); over all, I’d say we earnestly love each other.”
The mistake the members of the barista union made by sending Kerry Brown to act as their delegate was more serious than just sending an empath.
Interviewed by the Valley Advocate, union organizer Ryan Quinn (UAW Local 2322) said that he and his fellow organizers had been excited to work with the group from the start.
“I was impressed that Kerry Brown was able to get almost 90 percent of the staff united under one roof, ready to sign union cards,” he said. But Quinn said he thinks Brown is overstating his role in the union’s eventual failure.
“I know Kerry blames himself for the union losing the vote, but he shouldn’t,” Quinn said. “Him presenting the cards to Rao’s management was largely for effect. He was handing in photocopies; I was presenting the real cards to officials in Boston. After he left the effort, there were plenty of other capable people to take over.”
Brown’s attempt to break the union with promises he’d negotiated behind closed doors was far from surprising to Quinn.
“What Kerry and the Rao’s owners did was all by the playbook,” Quinn said. “It’s what happens all the time. It wasn’t surprising: it was exactly what we’d been warning the Rao’s baristas about in trainings.”
In the stack of documentation Brown provided the Advocate, there are several emails written by his colleagues that confirm the baristas had been duly warned.
“They will probably try and fire people or break people up and talk to them one-on-one to scare or bribe them out of the union by offering higher wages and other benefits,” one member cautioned in an email, noting that such tactics were “illegal.” Brown himself described his unsanctioned, unilateral negotiations as “the cardinal sin of union organizing.”
In the end, Quinn attributes the Rao’s barista defeat to “a fluke of scheduling.”
Quinn submitted the cards on Friday, May 11, 2012. Taking advantage of legislation that had been enacted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in December 2011, he expected the vote to be scheduled a week or so later—much faster than had been previously allowed. For years, pro-union legislators—like the late U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy—had been trying to make it easier for unions to form. Although those efforts had met strong resistance in Congress, the NLRB’s rule change was seen as a step in that direction. Quinn hoped an expedited process would let the UAW build on the employees’ momentum and give them the advantage of surprise.
Instead, in a decision unrelated to the Rao’s unionizing effort, the controversial new regulation was struck down the following Monday by a U.S. District Court judge, and the old vote scheduling rules were reinstated. Instead of days later, the vote was set for a month later on June 13.
Not only did this give Rao’s owners extra time to strategize with their lawyers, Quinn argued, but it also gave them time to schedule mandatory meetings with their employees to argue against the union. Momentum was halted and the surprise factor was lost. By mid-June, school was largely out and business had slowed. Workers who might have voted for the union had left the Valley for the summer.
“If that wasn’t bad enough, June 13 was the first day of the Bonnaroo music festival,” Quinn said. Held down in Manchester, Tennessee, it was a must-see music event. A carload of Rao’s employees were heading down earlier in the week to make it there on time.
“Had the vote happened a few weeks earlier, who knows?” Quinn said.
Throughout the interview, he spoke about the baristas with admiration, dismissing the notion that their amateur approach to organizing might have played a hand in how things went.
“Everyone deserves to work in a democratic workspace,” he said.
Kerry Brown still hopes he has a future in labor organizing. He is currently attending graduate school at UMass Amherst’s Labor Center, which markets itself as “the premier graduate program for working with unions and workers’ rights organizations.”
It remains to be seen if Brown’s academic work will awaken in him a deeper understanding of what happened last year than he was able to convey in interviews—namely that a successful unionizing effort is never a one-man-show.•