LOUISVILLE, KY — In the heart of one of the South’s most ardent right-to-work states, workers are leading a wave of union organizing.
Employees in Louisville have filed as many union petitions in the past 12 months as in the prior three years combined, an analysis of federal labor filings by More Perfect Union shows. The workers involved — from public defenders to dental assistants to baristas at Starbucks and three other cafe chains — come from a diverse array of professions.
“There’s this collective awareness that we’re all suffering the same way and that we don’t have to suffer any more,” said Alex Fitzgerald, a service industry worker who is helping to organize multiple shops across the city.
Workers at Louisville’s Pizza Lupo won a historic union on Monday, creating one of the first independent unionized restaurants in the South in living memory.
Pizza Lupo employees said they began organizing with Restaurant Workers United after drawing inspiration from workers at Austin-based pizza chain Via 313 over the summer. They sent a letter to Lupo’s owners on Saturday asking for voluntary recognition of their union. On Monday, just before the two sides were set to meet, management agreed to the request and recognized the union without an election.
“We value our employees and have always strived to provide a fair workplace for all,” the email sent by owners and management to workers read. “We believe a union can be a platform for communication and positive growth… We will be proud to support a restaurant workers union to continue to pave the way into a better future for everybody.”
Most workers at Pizza Lupo currently earn $13 to $15 per hour, while servers earn $5 per hour plus tips; the union hopes to address wages in a first contract. “I’m just so excited for the whole city of Louisville,” said Sophia DeVore, who has worked at Pizza Lupo for two years. “I hope this causes a domino effect.”
Last month, more than 200 baristas at Louisville-based Heine Brothers Coffee voted to unionize the chain’s 17 locations, forming the second largest barista union in the U.S. behind Colectivo Coffee. They organized with NCFO 32BJ SEIU in Louisville.
Heine Brothers baristas are demanding better wages and what they call “lifesaving benefits” including affordable health care and paid sick days. At the current wage of $9.25 per hour, workers say they have to work second and third jobs to make ends meet.
“I love the industry but it’s time for the workers to come in and advocate and win a decent life for ourselves so we can keep doing this,” said Thomas, a 10-year service sector worker who did not wish for his workplace to be named out of fear of retaliation.
Workers at Half Priced Books in Louisville joined the wave soon after, winning a union election to be represented by UFCW Local 227 on September 24. Booksellers at the national book chain are organizing for better pay, safer working conditions, and respect at work.
“I wanted a union for my co-workers and myself to have a say in the business we work so hard for every day. We deserve a seat at the table, and a place for our ideas not only to be heard, but for us to negotiate their implementation,” Mary Condon, a bookseller at Half Priced Books said in a release.
Without local press coverage, the public might not even know about the various organizing campaigns springing up across the city. That’s why journalists at the Louisville Courier say they formed a union — to protect their livelihoods as workers in the city too.
After a merger between the Louisville Courier’s parent company, Gatehouse Media, and media giant Gannett in 2019, journalists immediately began seeing layoffs and cutbacks to their benefits. They started organizing last year, and went public with supermajority support in August, but Gannett has refused to voluntarily recognize their union, forcing them into an NLRB sanctioned election.
Many journalists at the Courier earn less than $40,000 per year, forcing them to work second jobs or leave the field entirely. Louisville Courier workers are fighting for a fair salary floor, and to reinstate benefits like the company cell phone that they lost after the merger.
“This [unionizing] is the only way to give us a seat at the table with Gannett,” said Dahlia Ghabour, a food and dining reporter at the Louisville Courier.
Even Louisville’s public defense attorneys voted 32 to 5 in favor of forming a union this year, citing low pay and unmanageable caseloads as their top motivators. The starting annual salary for public defenders in Louisville is $45,000, one of the lowest in the country, according to a report from Law 360. The attorneys say their working conditions have negative impacts on their clients, who are already at an economic disadvantage.
But winning a union contract is no easy task, even for a group of attorneys. The Louisville-Jefferson County Public Defender Corporation has hired Smith & Smith Attorneys, a union-busting firm, and refuses to bargain in good faith, according to an NLRB complaint filed earlier this year.
“It’s about survival and advocating for our dignity,” Fitzgerald explained. “We are not expendable, and these are worthwhile occupations to have.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Starbucks Workers United as the largest U.S. barista union. Though more workers are unionized at Starbucks than at any other coffee chain, they have organized in smaller units — store by store — rather than as a unit covering multiple stores. Workers at Colectivo Coffee formed the largest U.S. baristas union in 2021 with a bargaining unit that includes 300 to 400 workers across roughly 20 stores in the Midwest.