Spilling the beans: coffee chain announces closure after baristas unionize

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 - 9:34pm

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Design by Christine Jegarl

This article has been updated to clarify that a barista at Mighty Good Coffee spoke to The Daily prior to an agreement with the company not to talk to the press.

When the baristas at Mighty Good Coffee formed a union last fall, they intended to stop their employers from discriminating against workers. Now the members of the Washtenaw Area Coffee Workers’ Association are negotiating severance pay as the owners of the local specialty coffee chain prepare to shutter all of Mighty Good’s stores across the city by the end of August. The first location to close its doors will be the Main Street location in Kerrytown, which is slated to close Friday.

An April 15 letter from Timothy Ryan, an attorney representing the chain’s owners, Nic Sims and David Myers, informed employees they were being terminated.

“Nic and David have concluded that they are not well suited to operate a retail operation,” the letter states. “They have found the experience to be overly stressful. It has created an unworkable burden on their relationship and their family.”


On Tuesday, baristas at Mighty Good Coffee protested the termination notice, which informed some workers they would be losing their jobs in less than a week. The employees demonstrated outside of Mighty Good’s locations on Main Street and South University Avenue, which will close on May 5.

In an interview with The Daily on Tuesday afternoon, Mandy Gallegos, a barista at Mighty Good’s Arbor Hills store, which is set to close Aug. 31, said the workers wanted to draw attention to what was happening at the company. 

“We’re trying to let people know that union-busting is a real thing,” Gallegos said. “The unfortunate part in all of this is that the Arbor Hills location will still be open, and so the unionized baristas will be working there, which will be very awkward for a lot of us.”

On Tuesday night, WACWA members met with the owners and their attorney to discuss the impact of the layoffs. The baristas then received orders not to speak to the press while negotiations were being finalized. 

Sims and Ryan did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Several Mighty Good employees told The Daily the owners were not answering any press inquiries. 

The letter informing employees of Mighty Good’s intention to shut down all of its stores came exactly one week after the employees’ union filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the company with the National Labor Relations Board.

Gallegos said the cause of the complaint was due to the fact that Mighty Good Coffee was “short staffing their workers.”

“Recently, we filed a ULP — which is an unfair labor practice — against them due to short staffing us chronically for the past few months,” Gallegas said. “And after they got that ULP they sent us an email via the lawyer saying that they were closing up all four of the shops and laying off all of the employees.”

An initial letter informing Mighty Good of the complaint against the company was sent on April 9, according to the NLRB case docket.

Gallegos said the union formed in the fall to bargain for better conditions and equal treatment after a fellow barista quit over accusations of racial discrimination, adding that Myers and Sims, the company’s owners, were not happy with the workers’ decision to form a union.

“We unionized because of a racial allegation against our work where one of our coworkers — a Black co-worker — was being underpaid compared to all of our white co-workers, so we unionized so we could just have opportunity and equal treatment in our workplace — better working conditions — and unfortunately, they did not like that,” Gallegos said. “They thought it was retaliation, and we’ve been working toward our union contract for the past few months with them, with the Mighty Good owners and their lawyer.”

Nya Njee was the barista who quit. She worked at Mighty Good for two years, but said she left after she discovered she was being paid less than her white coworkers.

In an interview with The Daily in August, Njee said her wages did not increase while she worked at Mighty Good despite receiving complementary performance reviews. Njee said she realized something was “kind of weird” when she mentioned not getting a pay raise to her owner and manager and they looked like “deer caught in headlights.”

“It just kept staying with me and it was bothering me the whole time and so when I found that my coworkers, like junior coworkers, some of whom didn’t have any coffee experience, had gotten raises before me, I was immediately like, well, that’s interesting since I’m literally the only Black woman in the whole company, and it was just unfortunately pretty obvious as soon as I heard that my junior coworkers — non-Black coworkers — were receiving raises before me,” Njee said.

Njee demanded the company provide her with back pay to compensate her for the hours she worked with lower wages than those given to her coworkers. She said she filed complaints with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and planned to reach out to “as many employment discrimination and wage and hour departments and agencies as I can.”

“At that point, I was like, ‘I’m sorry but I don’t work here because I like you, I work here for money, to be able to pay my bills,’ so I decided to walk out, to leave my job,” Njee said. “... I was just not comfortable whatsoever at that point. It was making me physically ill to be in that space and to be around them.”

According to VICE, Njee hired a lawyer and Mighty Good agreed to a settlement at the end of 2018. In an interview with The Daily on Thursday, Njee said she had signed a nondisclosure agreement with Mighty Good and declined to comment further.

In a statement posted to Mighty Good’s Twitter on Aug. 4, the day after Njee quit the job, the company said if changes were needed to improve the business for employees and customers, they would make them.

“We are deeply concerned about serious and disturbing allegations of race discriminations that have been made about our family business,” the statement read. “Our value system drives our decisions and how we operate at every level. We have always strived to be inclusive, supportive and invested in our staff’s success and professional development.”

The company said they did not plan to make any further public postings, and have not posted on their Twitter account since then.

The letter sent to Mighty Good’s employees on Monday offered them the opportunity to discuss a closing agreement with Mighty Good’s owners and their attorney on Tuesday.

LSA sophomore Elias Khoury, a member of Democratic Socialists of America and a former staff member for The Daily, said he attended the meeting out of solidarity. He said about 10 union members were present, in addition to Sims and Ryan. He called the atmosphere “tense,” noting the two parties agreed that if Mighty Good were ever to reopen, there would be preferential hiring for current employees. However, according to Khoury, the consensus ended there.

“That was something that the lawyer was totally on board with, but the main ask was the severance and they were not agreeing on that at all, and the workers were getting pretty upset and I could tell that the lawyer was getting kind of squeamish because it was him versus these 10 disgruntled workers,” Khoury said. “He wasn’t comfortable with that at all. Like I said earlier, the meeting was tense. It was not as if as though there was a lot of agreement, no one was saying kumbaya.”

Gallegos said severance pay was one of WACWA’s primary demands.

“All we can do is spread the word about unions, let people know that union busting is a real thing and work for equal treatment,” Gallegos said. “We’re just trying to get severance for the employees that are being laid off immediately.”

Alice Tracey contributed reporting to this story.