Food by VICE

This Coffee Shop Unionized After an Employee Quit over Alleged Discrimination

Barista unions aren't common nationwide, but workers say they were compelled by the "disquieting" situation.

by Tom Perkins
Jan 23 2019, 6:15pm

Photo by the author. 

In its performance reviews for Nya Njee, Mighty Good Coffee’s management painted a picture of a valued employee, one who’s “enthusiastic about continued development of barista skills and coffee knowledge.” The Ann Arbor, MI-based company praised her “positive attitude” and “solid work ethic” while highlighting how “engaged” she was.

That matched up with a section in one review dedicated to “behaviors that need to be ... addressed” in which management wrote, “[n]othing to add at this time :-)”. Njee says Mighty Good management tapped her to train staff at a new shop it opened, and even gave her a title that came with more responsibility—”senior barista”—though it didn’t come with more pay.

In fact, after nearly two years at Mighty Good, Njee said she never received a raise. She said she was verbally told by owner Nic Sims that she didn’t get one because her work ethic “was not that stellar.”

But that contradicted the performance reviews, and Njee and some coworkers say there’s another reason she was passed over for raises—Njee is Black. She also claims her shop’s white coworkers with less seniority and experience, including those who she trained, earned more than her.

That prompted Njee to quit on August 3rd of last year. On August 6th, Njee accused Mighty Good of racial discrimination in a Facebook post that was shared over 500 times. In it, she also demanded $2,000 in back pay, which is roughly the amount she says she would’ve earned had Mighty Good given her two expected pay raises.

Njee’s coworkers responded not just with vocal support, but by taking an extraordinary step—unionizing. Ian Wilkinson, a Mighty Good barista union organizer, said he’s only aware of one other barista union in the country. Mighty Good’s workers felt compelled to unionize because they found Njee’s situation “equal parts disquieting and unsurprising,” one employee said. The union is demanding workplace changes that would empower workers to prevent and respond to racial discrimination. Wilkinson told MUNCHIES that Mighty Good recognized the union in November, and talks are ongoing.

“The idea of the union is to … make it more difficult for things like that to happen,” Wilkinson said.

After quitting, Njee hired an attorney, and Mighty Good chose to settle in late December. The agreement contained a non-disclosure agreement preventing Njee or her attorney from discussing the case. But MUNCHIES spoke with Njee in late November, at which time she described the situation as follows: “They used their power as a company and as white people with more privilege and power to exercise economic domination over me, which is a basic definition of racism, whether the law acknowledges that or not,” adding that she was Mighty Good’s only Black employee when she started. Through her tenure there were only ever two other Black baristas on the staff of 17, though Wilkinson said Njee was the only one when she quit.

Sims wouldn’t speak on the record with MUNCHIES even before the settlement. Her Grand Rapids-based attorney, Timothy J. Ryan, responded to questions via email on November 25. Ryan denied wrongdoing and claimed the company didn’t give raises to other employees who are white: “MGC does not and has not engaged in any racially discriminatory conduct or practice.”

‘The policies are different when it comes to me’

However, Njee told MUNCHIES in November that she saw it differently. Mighty Good hired her in August 2016 at a rate of $10 per hour, at which time a manager verbally promised raises after six months and a year, Njee said. But in late 2017, after more than a year of employment, two strong performance reviews, a new title, and accepting more responsibility including a request to train staff at the new store, Njee still earned what she made in August 2016.

After Sims allegedly told her her work ethic was the problem, Njee assumed the company wasn’t giving raises to anyone. But she said she spoke with coworkers at her cafe throughout early 2018 and learned that they—including some with less seniority—were all earning more. Njee said she also spoke with former coworkers at the location who confirmed that they had received raises.

“Almost everybody got raises and was making more than me. That’s when I knew it was race-based,” Njee said. “I was like ‘You’re really paying the only Black woman barista at the company … less than the other baristas? Seriously?’”

Former Mighty Good shift leader Rebecca Kephart is one of those coworkers. She started at the shop in early 2017, quit in July 2018, and received a raise and promotion during that time. She told MUNCHIES in November that Njee’s work ethic was “strong,” adding that Njee “saw through every task and picked up slack where there was slack that needed to be picked up. I don’t think that's a valid criticism, to say that her work ethic ‘was not stellar.’”

In July 2018, Njee put in her two-week notice, informing Sims that the pay disparity motivated the decision. Management then offered to increase Njee’s pay to $11.50 per hour, but Njee said, since she calculated she would have been earning $12 per hour for nearly a year had she received the raises, she asked for $11.90 and backpay. (Minimum wage in Michigan in 2019 is $9.25 per hour, while a living wage in Ann Arbor is $12.39 per hour.) Management said ‘no’ to the counteroffer. Njee said Sims then claimed the manager who promised raises was “lying, or he must not have known the policies.”

Njee said she was skeptical of that explanation: “So the policies are different for me? Everyone else gets raises, but suddenly the policies are different when it comes to me? I said this is a little too much.”

Njee never returned to Mighty Good after clocking out on August 3rd.

‘It was a call to advocacy’

As of mid-January 2019, 13 of 15 baristas across Mighty Good are joining the union. Wilkinson said he and other coworkers were in a “privileged position” to witness the community’s reaction, then watch those who spoke up unknowingly “support the power structure that makes these things possible.”

“It was a call to advocacy, and we were in position to ... make good on where we felt we had failed,” he said.

Mighty Good immediately recognized the union, and negotiations began in mid-November. Wilkinson said “management hasn’t tried to retaliate, they haven't gotten petty about anything, and it’s been, for the most part, business as usual at the shops.”

Some of the union’s demands include social justice elements that are unusual, Wilkinson said. Among those are a demand for pay transparency. Mighty Good’s management doesn’t want employees discussing wages, Wilkinson said, which he called “a form of wage suppression “ that “opens up an avenue for race-based disparity.”

The union is also requesting peer evaluations, or evaluations carried out by workers along with management, which Wilkinson said would “allow workers to speak up for each other” while shifting some power from management to workers.

The union is eager to increase the number of people of color working at Mighty Good, though it’s limited in what it can legally demand. But Wilkinson said it’s figuring out how it can actively recruit people of color.

Wilkinson added that the plan is to grow the union beyond Mighty Good, and include other coffee companies and shops where baristas are facing similar issues.

“Whether or not it takes root in our community, it’s a good example to set,” he said. “There are a lot of baristas in the community and nationally who are abused, taken and advantage of, and a lot of workplaces are unsafe for people to be who they are. So being able to do something like this sets a precedent, especially if owners can see that workers have some power.”