Baristas Say Blank Street Is a Good Place to Work—That’s Why They’re Unionizing
Workers at twenty-six stores in New York City have already voted "yes."
3:41 PM EDT on April 10, 2023
Lots of New Yorkers love to hate Blank Street Coffee. Eater New York decried the chain's "oppressive blah-ness" back in August and noted its "potential to threaten mom-and-pop coffee shops." The same month, a New York Times report detailed the tech entrepreneur ethos and wads of venture capital cash fueling the company. This information fortified a growing consensus: Blank Street was uncool.
Tucked into a parenthetical in the Times profile was a bright spot in the company's operations: Blank Street's dedication to paying its employees a starting salary of $23/hour, well above New York City's $12.50/hour minimum wage for tipped service workers. According to the baristas and shift leaders who spoke to Hell Gate, it's one of the best coffee gigs they've ever had. The pay is good, the workers skew young and queer, and Blank Street offers its employees supplemental programs like latte art classes or digital media workshops—plus a shot at in-company internships in social media marketing or human resources.
But that hasn't stopped many of the company's workers in New York City from voting to join a union over the past several months. As the company expands operations into Boston, D.C., and London, Blank Street workers in the city say they want to codify the things that make the job a good one (and address the problems that they say exist) by unionizing their shops across Brooklyn and Manhattan.
"I feel like a lot of union drives in the U.S. unfortunately come from conditions deteriorating so far that people feel like they desperately need a union," Jaye Balentine, a shift lead at the MetroTech Blank Street in Downtown Brooklyn, told Hell Gate. "A lot of us like our jobs—it's definitely not an Amazon or Starbucks kind of energy. There's a reason we're unionizing instead of quitting. Without a contract, we're basically at the mercy of a growing company that's rapidly moving from that cool, progressive startup into more of a classic, profit-driven corporation."
New York City currently has more than 40 Blank Street Coffee locations scattered across six neighborhoods—Downtown Brooklyn (which absorbed the locations that previously fell under the domain of "Williamsburg"), Park Slope, Chelsea, SoHo, Midtown, and Uptown.
So far, 26 shops in four of the five neighborhoods that have voted in an NLRB election have successfully unionized under United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500 in neighborhood-wide votes: Downtown Brooklyn, Park Slope, SoHo, and Williamsburg, which was the first to do it back in January.
Uptown voted no, and Midtown has yet to vote. (Blank Street also operates King David Taco carts that are not currently part of the union drive.)
Lulu Mead, a union organizer and barista at a Blank Street in Park Slope, said that organizing hasn't been a hard sell.
"Most of the time, it's been overwhelmingly positive, I think because there are so many things to enjoy about the company," Mead said. "[The baristas] do want to stay on with the company, so they want to take time outside of work, in their personal life, to go and vote and research and have meetings and go to other stores."
Of course, every job has its problems. Sequoya Waring, a barista at a Williamsburg Blank Street, said he's watched his hours decrease over the year he's worked at his location. "When I started there, I was getting close to 40 hours [weekly], but at this point, I'm consistently only making 32 hours a week," he said. "In our employment contract, it says we're guaranteed approximately 30 to 40 hours a week, but the 'approximately' allows them to give us pretty much whatever," a situation that makes it hard for employees to determine whether working at Blank Street alone is enough to pay the bills every month.
Balentine, the Downtown Brooklyn employee, said they've spoken with workers who want a grievance process to deal with "problematic" managers, who at times appear frequently due to high turnover rates. "You'd go through like, four managers over the course of five months, and a lot of them to varying degrees made employees uncomfortable, and were really not following through on stuff," they said. "Employees didn't have a way to speak up for themselves, and a lot of us want more of a voice to navigate those kinds of situations."
Then, there were the carts. Although they're now largely out of commission, Blank Street originally operated out of a fleet of mint green, eco-friendly carts, contracted out through a company called EV Foods (now rebranded as Zevv). Mead said she was originally hired in July 2022 to work out of the carts in Park Slope, but that the vehicles constantly broke down or malfunctioned, which meant she'd get reassigned to a different location on the fly. "The carts would literally be smoking, and you'd be in them," Mead said. "Like, 'Why does it smell like something's burning? Oh, there's smoke coming out of it.'"
Mead said workers and managers were even tasked with moving broken carts themselves—something she saw as significantly above her pay grade, both physically and literally. "One time, we got some men who were there for the farmers' market to like, try and help us, and we didn't even get to move it an inch," she said. "It ran over a guy's foot, and he lost three toenails."
The Blank Street Union members Hell Gate spoke to repeatedly invoked union drives at Amazon, Starbucks, and Chipotle—retail and service workplaces where employees face similar challenges to those at Blank Street—as touchstones for their own effort. The major difference, so far, they said, is that pushback from Blank Street's management has been tame in comparison to the captive audience meetings and other blatantly union-busting tactics that retail giants regularly deploy.
Blank Street did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Hell Gate, but Blank Street Union members said that the company has largely bitten its tongue when it comes to discouraging union activity, although they're conscious of the fact that could change once it's time to start bargaining a contract.
"When we first filed for our election, for example, they sent out a statement that was like, 'Blank Street supports whatever the workers choose...but just as a reminder, working with the company and not a union gives you a lot more flexibility and we've always treated you really well,'" Balentine said. "Just that soft, 'We stand behind you, but it would be a lot better if you didn't vote for union' kind of messaging."
The coffee company's apparent reticence to pull employees into captive audience meetings or shutter entire stores to squash the union push makes sense to its workers for a couple of reasons, they said. First, Blank Street is still very much a start-up, not a global corporation worth billions of dollars. "Even if Blank Street wanted to do hardcore union-busting, they probably wouldn't be able to afford it," Waring said. "I think the consequences of potentially union-busting would be more dire for them than for all these other companies that you've seen union-busting, who are able to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at fines."
But maybe more importantly, the workers feel that the company has an image to uphold—one that a serious union-busting campaign would seriously tarnish. "[Management] is way more focused on customer service, and less so the actual coffee part of the job. Their brand is like, young, queer, liberal, fun, cool—which, in my experience working with other baristas, is pretty accurate," Mead said. "I think they're like, 'Well, we decided to hire these kinds of people, and now they make up our entire company.' And they can't afford to alienate their entire company."
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