Danny Epstein: From probably 9-5 every day our line is out the door, and we are ripping through espresso drinks and draft latte drinks. No one at this company I think has ever worked so hard and made so little money.
Sarah Clausen: We do the hard work of making sure people are awake in the morning, you know, making sure people are sent off in good graces to go do their work. We need to kind of take our work into our own hands and realize that we’re fronting a lot of communities.
Unions are brewing at yet another billionaire-led coffee chain
Danny: La Colombe is a high-end corporate coffee chain with locations all across the country.
Sarah: It started off as more of like a local coffee shop and then quickly expanded to over 6 states.
Danny: Easily the most popular La Colombe product is the draft latte. In all the cafes, we serve it on tap. And you can find that same drink in cans, basically, at any grocery store at this point. I went camping over the summer, and they were selling them at the campground that I was at. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, can’t get away.
Workers at four La Colombe cafes across DC and Chicago have filed to unionize over unlivable wages
Danny: I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about La Colombe. First and foremost, I think most of the people that come into La Colombe believe it to be a local coffee chain, and I think the company goes a long way towards sort of fostering this sort of small company vibe. And it usually shocks people to find that they’re a national coffee corporation owned by a multinational corporation: Chobani.
The founder of La Colombe went on record a few years back saying that if you can’t afford to pay your employees a living wage, then you don’t deserve to be in business. Personally I find that to be a little ridiculous because I don’t think anyone at La Colombe has ever made a living wage.
Our cafes are usually located in the most expensive metropolitan areas in the country, usually in the most expensive neighborhoods.
Jules Tartaro: I make $17.60 an hour plus tips. I, when I worked full-time, was living paycheck to paycheck. And I’m somebody with no kids, and I’m somebody who has no loans. If I’m struggling on the wage at La Colombe, then a lot of people I work with who have multiple complicating factors financially, like I can’t imagine what their situation is like and how much stress that they have.
Danny: Any time any barista has made anything close to a living wage in their city, it’s been a product of the tipping, and we’ve recently seen that take a definite nose dive with the sort of intense inflation that we’ve been experiencing in the last year or 2.
Sarah: I mean the wage literally gives us enough to survive and come back to work in the morning.
Jozlyn Brooks: I cannot afford to pay rent and my student loans all on my own, with my wage currently.
Danny: La Colombe can definitely afford to give us a living wage. We are currently headed by one of the richest people in the world.
Once the first DC union was announced, CEO Hamdi Ulukaya met with a few of its members
Riley Buikema: It was a long conversation, almost 2 hours. He told me that it was really concerning to him that we felt like we needed to unionize.
Jules: When Hamdi sat down with me, he wanted to make it all about him. There was very little interaction between us about what I felt about the union and my goals and how I felt working at La Colombe. And it was a lot of emotional manipulation on his part on how much this was hurting him, how personal it felt towards him.
Riley: He didn’t seem like he was super excited at the thought of us unionizing, but he also told me that he didn’t wanna stand in the way of it. To which I asked, “Do you wanna voluntarily recognize our union?” And then that was really the end of that conversation.
Jozlyn: I think it’s important that they understand that we’re unionizing in order to work better with them, in order to make the job better. This isn’t like something out of spite or to take down the company.
Jules: I spend so much of my life in my workplace, I want to feel as if I’m not just at the whim of management, and that I can feel stable and safe and that I have the resources that I need to be able to live my life outside of work. And for me that looks like having a higher starting wage, that looks like having better benefits.
Danny: At the end of the day, I actually enjoy this job. I love everyone that I work with. And what we’re fighting for is to make it better for everyone that comes after us and for us there right now. We want this job to be a sustainable, safe place to work, and that’s really all we’re asking for.