ITHACA, N.Y. – A group of workers at Ithaca Coffee Company announced Friday that they have submitted an unfair labor practices charge to the National Labor Relations Board, alleging management has interfered with their right to form a union.
Workers notified ICC owner Julie Crowley of their intent to form a union in mid-April and publicly announced a unionization campaign on social media on April 19. A press release circulated by organizing committee members and the Tompkins County Workers’ Center on Friday alleges that after workers announced the campaign, “ICC’s management immediately resorted to threatening workers with retaliation, including the threat to close store locations if employees voted to join a union. Pervasive intimidation discouraging employees from discussing terms and conditions of employment with pro-union workers has created an atmosphere of chilling fear in the workplace.”
Section 7 of the the National Labor Relations Act protects workers’ rights to organize, join or form labor organization, bargain collectively and engage in concerted activities for mutual aid or protection. According to the NLRB, it is an unfair labor practice “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Section 7 (of the Act),” including by threatening employees with adverse consequences for unionizing, promising benefits to employees who reject a union, coercively questioning employees about their involvement, or “convey(ing) the message that selecting a union would be futile.”
Crowley said in an interview with the Ithaca Voice on Friday that she does not know what the basis is for the charge of unfair labor practices. “I’m not aware of any issues, I’m not aware of any rights that we’ve violated. We like our employees to speak up for themselves. As far as I know we’ve addressed issues with anyone individually who’ve brought them forward,” she said, adding, “I know what their rights are, I know what my rights are. I have every right to state my opinion, they have every right to organize.”
The workers’ unionization campaign is centered on a few key demands. Organizers are seeking a contract with a “just cause” clause preventing arbitrary termination, as well as a schedule for wage increases. Organizers are also pushing to have a voice in company decisions via a bargaining unit.
New York is an “at-will” employment state, according to the Department of Labor, which means, “Without a contract restricting termination, generally an employer has the right to discharge an employee at any time for any, or no, reason, providing it is not an act of illegal retaliation or discrimination.” ICC’s counterparts at Gimme! Coffee were able to secure a contract with a “just cause” clause following their successful unionization campaign in 2018.
According to Friday’s press release, ICC workers start at minimum wage “with not much room for raises or growth within the company, leading to a high turnover rate.” Minimum wage in New York State is currently $11.10/hour.
Ana Ottoson, a member of the ICC organizing committee, said in a statement, “I have been struggling since I was hired with paying all my bills, due to the ridiculously low wages; having had a union contract would’ve helped to ensure regular raises and incentivize the entire staff to stay longer.”
Ottoson also said the business’s scheduling practices make it difficult for her to supplement her ICC income. “I have been struggling with a changing schedule on a weekly basis making me unable to get a second job to make ends meet. Having a union contract will make me feel more secure in my job, in my financial life, and more able to offer a good experience to our customers since I won’t be stressing about my bills or job security,” she said.
Crowley rejected the idea that unionization would lead to higher wages. “Who doesn’t want to be paid more? But unionizing, especially at a small company, doesn’t guarantee them anything,” she said.
ICC has two retail locations, in the Triphammer Marketplace in Lansing and the Gateway Commons in Downtown Ithaca, as well as a coffee roasting and bake shop facility on Hancock Street in Ithaca. Crowley also owns Triphammer Wine and Spirits. She said employees at the small businesses have a direct line to management and can work with management to address issues.
“I am certainly free to express my opinion, which is that I don’t think a union is necessary in a small business like ours where they can speak to management directly,” she said.
She added that the Gateway Commons location has been adversely impacted by construction at City Centre and the Hilton Canopy hotel, and said her efforts have been focused on keeping the business afloat. “We’re just trying to keep our heads above water down there,” she said, characterizing the dispute as a distraction. “We’d like to get back to serving the customer and doing business.”
Brenden Lukosavich, another ICC organizing committee member, said there is broad support among employees to form a union and negotiate a contract. In a statement, he alleged management has blocked union support by threatening workers. “Our management knows that a majority of workers would support joining a union if we weren’t being threatened over doing so. The management threatened us, and now we have to ask the federal government to hold them accountable. However, even more important is how ICC’s customers and this community will hold them accountable.”
Crowley said Ottoson and Lukosavich’s statements are “100 percent false.”
“We have never threatened to close our store. We have never threatened anybody’s job,” Crowley said. “I’m concerned about false narratives hurting my business.”
ICC organizers have gotten support from the Tompkins County Workers’ Center and Workers United, a labor organization active throughout central and upstate New York. Ava Mailloux, a leader of the Gimme! Coffee baristas bargaining unit within Workers United Local 2833, said the Gimme! Barista’s Union stands in solidarity with ICC workers.
“In this time of wage stagnation and increasing economic polarization, the fight against inequality must begin in our own communities. Everyone deserves a living wage, protection under just cause, and freedom from fear of retaliation and threats. When we unionize and stand in solidarity with each other, we raise the standard of living for workers throughout the county. Happy, healthy workers make for a stronger community. I hope these local business owners find their way past bullying and intimidation to addressing the root causes of dissatisfaction among their employees and making meaningful changes,” Mailloux said in a statement.
The NLRB’s regional director will investigate whether allegations of unfair labor practices have merit. If the office finds grounds to move forward with formal action, the regional director will issue a complaint against ICC and the company will have an opportunity to submit a response. Workers can continue to push for unionization in the meantime, in keeping with NLRA protections.
Featured image: ICC workers announced a unionization effort on social media April 19. (Provided photo)