Last month, on April 17, a collection of no-managerial workers at Ithaca Coffee Company (ICC) informed ICC owner Julie Crowley their intent to form a union. Since then, workers are claiming that management has engaged in unlawful labor violations to intimidate workers out of unionizing, a claim that Crowley flatly denies.
Last week, on May 10, ICC workers filed an Unfair Labor Practices complaint against management with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that “On or about April 18, 2019, and continuing, the Employer interrogated, threatened and coerced employees who had attempted to form, join, or assist a labor organization, engaged in concerted activity for mutual aid or protection, and engaged in other protected activity under the [National Labor Relations] Act.”
Brenden Lukosavich, an employee of ICC and one of the union organizing committee members, said there is a lot of fear in the workplace right now and several of his co-workers that he considered friends won’t even speak with him. He has since given his notice to leave.
“They’re afraid that a branch is going to get shut down,” Lukosavich said. “There’s a really big divide between the stores [the Triphammer mall branch and the Gateway Plaza branch] right now. Most of the committee members worked at the Gateway location.”
Before the workers publicly announced their intent to unionize, Lukosavich said they had around 80 percent ready to join. Since the announcement and the alleged intimidation, he said that number has dropped to around 30 percent. Lukosavish said that about eight months ago he was introduced to a representative from Workers United, a union organization of more than 9,5000 active members and retirees in the Upstate and Central New York area, according to its website. From there, Lukosavich said he began to talk to his fellow employees about what issues they were seeing in the workplace.
“At this point, I noticed a lot of problems in the workplace,” he said. “A lot of people had the same problems and I brought up that a union might be a good idea to have is addressed.”
According to the press release from the Tompkins County Worker’s Center from May 10, and reiterated by Lukosavich, the main reason that ICC workers wanted to unionize was that they are “at-will” employees, meaning they can be fired without an establishment of just cause. As a union with a “just cause” clause, they would no longer be “at will.”
Lukosavich said the union also wanted to argue for higher wages, and that currently there was not much room for raises or growth in the company, leading to a high turnover rate. As a union, Lukosavich argued that they would have more of a voice in the company, making it easier to be heard.
“The main thing about unions is having a democratic voice in the company, so being able to bargain with the owners is a huge part of it that we would like to see,” he said. “Because everyone has different problems with the company and it’s probably the best way for them to get addressed.”
After announcing their intent to unionize and passing out letters to their fellow employees, including a q&a and a union card, Lukosavich said one of the store’s supervisors and head roaster verbally harassed one of the employees who was involved in the unionizing effort in front of his fellow employees, threatening that one of the branches would have to be shut down. It’s a message that Lukosavich said made its way to the other stores and that people were afraid that their jobs would be lost if one of the stores was closed. In the days following, Lukosavich said that same manager pulled people aside and told them there was no need to join a union, and that they would receive raises if they did not sign the union card.
If it was not for this one supervisor, Lukosavich believes there would be no grounds for the NLRB complaints, since the owners and other members of management have been careful to simply state that they do not support a union, but do have an open door policy for employees to come to speak to them about issues.
Owner Julie Crowley reiterated this open door policy when speaking with Tompkins Weekly about the NLRB complaint and alleged harassment.
“I am unaware of any labor violations,” Crowley said. “I am absolutely aware that a group of employees in coordination with the Tompkins Workers Center want to form a union. I have every right under the labor laws to state my opinion, which is I personally don’t feel that we need a union in our small company where our employees have direct access to their manager and to the owners of the company, which are present and active in the company, and that the employees can speak for themselves.”
At the time of the conversation on May 10, Crowley said she was unaware of the Unfair Labor Practice complaint from her employees to the NLRB, and that she thought this indicated that the employees were not talking to their managers about their concerns.
“I’m very confident that management has conducted themselves in a professional, legal manner,” Crowley said. “We have every right to express our opinion. We don’t have any right to threaten, intimidate, make promises. None of those things have happened. No one’s job has been threatened. Those are just lies.”
Crowley said her employees have every right to unionize, but she did not believe that the company needed a union. According to the NLRB complaint, there are 22 employees at Ithaca Coffee Company.
“As far as I know, they’re not getting a lot of support from other staff,” Crowley said. “I have to assume the other staff feel they can come to us directly with their issues and have things addressed, they don’t feel they need to pay a third party so that they can have their employment issues addressed. I don’t think it’s necessary in a small company like ours.”
To the accusations of intimidation and harassment, Crowley said the accusations are lies and that management never did what they are being accused of.
“This is straight out of the union playbook,” Crowley said. “I know what my rights are. I know what their rights are. I’ve been through this before… Those things did not happen.”
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