Great Lakes Coffee workers strike, demand clear COVID-19 protocols

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Employees at the Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co.'s flagship location in Midtown Detroit went on strike Wednesday morning and enlisted hospitality workers' union Unite Here Local 24 to represent their demands.

In addition to clearer safety protocols, baristas and cooks from the coffee shop at Woodward and Alexandrine say they want a fair first contract that has clear COVID-19 guidelines, a starting wage of at least $15 per hour, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination protections, affordable health, dental and vision insurance, and paid time off including sick days and parental leave.

The employees, who call themselves "Comrades in Coffee," also are asking for "better communication from management to staff." A representative for Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co. could not immediately be reached for comment. 

Lex Blom, a Great Lakes employee for four and a half years, said the most important reason they are striking is for the recognition of their union and the contract negotiation with the coffee company's management. 

"We are hoping to create a better working environment for ourselves, and outside of that, for the baristas of the greater Metro Detroit area," she said. "We're fighting for our employment with Great Lakes now, but this is an industry-rooted industry at large that affects way more than just us."

Blom said they stand in solidarity with the Michigan Starbucks locations that are moving to unionize, following the unionization of two locations in Buffalo, New York, in December. 

"We want to support every barista that wants to seek unionization," said Blom. "We've been in contact with a couple of the people from Ann Arbor (Starbucks location) and we want to establish more contact as more Starbucks start to unionize in Michigan and I think we're going to start to seeing it pick up pretty quick." 

Great Lakes Coffee Roasting's Midtown location has been temporarily closed since January, when employees say nine out of 15 staff members tested positive for COVID-19. At Wednesday's rally, employees said they received little guidance from management when more than half the staff was out with COVID, leaving the remaining employees with a greater workload. 

Coffee baristas, cooks and supporters picket in front of Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co. in Detroit, Michigan on February 16, 2022.

Organizers and participants at the rally said unless workers get a fair contract, they'll be back next Wednesday to rally again. In addition to Unite Here Local 24 president Nia Winston, speakers at Wednesday's gathering included State Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck; Detroit City Councilwoman Gabriela Santiago-Romero of District 6, AFT-MI president David Hecker, UAW vice president Cindy Estrada and U.S. Rep. Rashida Talib, D-Detroit. 

"We’re going to shut this place down," Talib said Wednesday. "There is no way we can lose if we all stick together."

There's a long distance between union recognition and getting a first contract, said Marick Masters, professor of business at Wayne State University's Mike Illtch School of Business. 

"The company has a lot of options that it could pursue. It has legal options it can pursue about challenging the bargaining unit," he said. "The company has the option of just closing down.

"This is a small business, essentially, that's been hard-hit by COVID and while it's unusual for workers to respond to this by trying to unionize, it is something that, I think, is partial of the time where we see growing interest in unionizing these kinds of entities, these kinds of coffee establishments, where working conditions can be very, very challenging."

Masters says the employees have a lot of hurdles ahead of them, and dealing with a smaller company like Great Lakes Coffee may be even harder than a larger company like Starbucks because the latter has more durability. 

"They're going to let people vent and protest," he said, "but they're not under any obligation to do anything."

Twitter: @melodybaetens