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Spyhouse Coffee workers are about to vote on forming a union

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For workers at Spyhouse Coffee, the list of grievances just kept growing. 

Pay and benefits were never ideal at the Twin Cities coffee chain's six locations, they report, but then COVID-19 hit, revealing a level of disconnect with ownership many viewed as untenable. Community blowback sparked by a leaked, racially insensitive email from ownership further damaged morale.

"A lot of us got fed up and started talking to each other," barista Maeve Collins says. "One thing led to another... and now we’re here."

On Wednesday, around 34 Spyhouse workers informed owner Christian Johnson of their intent to form a union. Johnson declined to recognize the union late Thursday, writing in a memo to staff: "I am hopeful that we can begin direct and authentic discussions with employees without the need for a third-party conduit in an effort to build from within."

That means Spyhouse workers — 87 percent of whom have signed union cards — will soon vote to become a National Labor Relations Board-recognized union. They'll then be able to collectively bargain with the 20-year-old coffee chain for pay, benefits, and working conditions as members of Unite Here Local 17, the Minneapolis-based hospitality union that represents roughly 6,000 workers.

Johnson did not return requests for comment from City Pages. 

“Spyhouse workers are ready to have a voice in their job; they have tried and tried to express concerns about their workplace, and nothing changes," says Unite Here organizer Sheigh Freeberg. "Ultimately, they love their work and by unionizing they are hoping to make Spyhouse a place where people feel safe, heard, and respected."

After a round of lockdown furloughs, Spyhouse workers returned to the job in April. Workers have been "kind of going at it blindly" ever since, according to barista Matt Marciniec. 

As part of his coronavirus executive orders, Gov. Tim Walz required all restaurants operating during the pandemic to implement preparedness plans by June 29. Spyhouse finally revealed its plan to staff in mid-August, workers tell City Pages. Repeated requests for plexiglass dividers went ignored; policing customer mask use has proven chaotic.  

“A lot of us had been feeling frustrated, definitely by COVID and the unclearly communicated safety protocols; we didn't feel like our safety was being prioritized," Marciniec says. "There was pretty much no democracy in the workplace."

Baristas make minimum wage plus tips, Collins says, and benefits are not generous. COVID hazard pay has not been discussed, according to Spyhouse supervisor Grace Erpenbach, adding that a lack of transparency from ownership has created widespread discontent. 

"Overall, there aren't a lot of voices being heard to make sure staff is happy and safe," she says. "There’s no actual change, and if there is, it’s only recently because they know staff is so unhappy."

Workers' moods worsened in June when a corporate email from eight years ago resurfaced online. In it, Spyhouse ownership advised staff members on how to navigate summertime crime spikes in south Minneapolis; the memo shared anecdotes about "black males" casing the downtown location, an "intoxicated Native American" being removed by cops, and "street people" who are "panhandling to get money for alcohol."

Condemnation from the community was swift and justified, Collins says, adding that workers were forced to endure the backlash. Spyhouse workers widely viewed the company's response as insufficient. Collins says it's one of the main reasons they decided to unionize. 

“We would love to get the trust from the community back," she says. "Some regulars have conflicted feelings, but they want to support the workers. It hurts."

Erpenbach also feels pride for Spyhouse. 

“I’m trying to organize and unionize for this company because I really do care about it a lot," she says. "I’m excited to fight for our staff and make Spyhouse a place to be proud to work at again.” 

When northeast Minneapolis's Tattersall Distillery voted to become America's first unionized craft distillery last week, Spyhouse workers took notice.

"Seeing all the support with Tattersall, and that it could be done, we were like, ‘We can actually do this.’" Collins says. "It inspired a lot of hope."

Tattersall and Spyhouse, both of which were organized by Unite Here Local 17, are now local examples of a small but surging push for unionizing food workers. It's "only the beginning," Freeberg predicts, of a reinvigorated labor movement inside the Twin Cities service industry. 

"I would think this would lead to a domino effect, where other workers feel powerful, feel like they can stand up for themselves," Marciniec says. "That they don’t have to accept the bottom of the barrel, they don’t have to accept the status quo, and they can fight for more control of the workplace that they’re an instrumental part of. They should demand to have their input heard.”

Update: On Friday, a PR firm released the following statement from Spyhouse:

"Spyhouse is wholeheartedly committed to working to better serve the needs of our Spyhouse family so that we may collectively continue serving our community as a gathering place where our awesome and loyal customers begin and end their day with us. Spyhouse believes in the right of each and every eligible Spyhouse employee to vote in a formal free-choice election certified and governed by the National Labor Relations Board."