A former worker at Korshak Bagels at 10th and Morris streets in South Philadelphia helped create the new local Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

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A new local union connected to Philadelphia’s branch of Workers United is aiming to bring positive change to the city’s food service industry.

Called Local 80, its goal is to aid burgeoning union campaigns throughout the city, and they’re fielding plenty of interest. It came to be after Philly Starbucks workers began to unionize, a campaign that followed a string of barista-backed efforts to organize at local, non-corporate roasters.

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The new local bears its name because of the 80 people initially involved in its creation. It became official in late May as part of Philadelphia Joint Board, the city’s branch of Workers United.

“Right now, I would say our work is sectoral,” Eli Zastempowski, an organizer for Local 80, told Billy Penn, with current efforts focusing on Philly’s many independent cafes.

In the future, the plan is to also help organize bakeries and restaurants. “What we aim to be really is an industrial union,” Zastempowski said, “organized along all of the supply lines, right down to distributors.”

Workers United is an SEIU affiliate that already has a large footprint among Philly food service workers via the catering industry. It represents Aramark workers at various colleges, and food service staff at the Philly Zoo, the Pa. Convention Center, and many more locations — not to mention hospitality and manufacturing workers throughout Philly. But before Local 80, it hadn’t reached into independent cafes or food retail businesses.

The first hurdle to clear is assisting a series of soon-to-be-announced campaigns throughout Philadelphia. In the coming weeks and months, workers from some of Philly’s most popular coffee shops are expected to ask their employers to recognize them as a union.

Zastempowski trod that path while working as a bagelmonger and contract negotiator at South Philly’s Korshak Bagels.

In terms of COVID-era local cafe organizing, Korshak workers are something like the canary in the coal mine. They went public as a union on June 3, 2021 — and were recognized as a union on the spot by founder/owner Phil Korshak.

Korshak himself remembers the demand for recognition as “the root truth of being in the business that we are in — that of service.”

Lily Fender, a member of the Korshak union’s bargaining committee, recalls a rocky start to negotiating, as both sides were new to the process. “Frankly, when we started I really feel like [the union] had no idea what we were doing, and just played it all by ear,” Fender said.

But after reaching out to Workers United because of its work with Starbucks, the Korshak union learned the ropes. The two parties came to an agreement, ratifying a contract in late May.

Offices of the Philadelphia Joint Board at 22nd and Market streets Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

A movement years in the making

“It’s been a long time coming,” Zastempowski said of the cafe worker unionization movement. “People have been putting up with decreasing wages, increasing cost of living, not to mention all of the harassment.”

Philly coffee shop workers began sharing wages and work conditions in 2019 via Google spreadsheet. Around the same time, a group started meeting in person to discuss the state of the industry — Zastempowski remembers a “citywide barista council” with 30-40 workers.

It was an energizing moment for them, having been a part of Philly Workers for Dignity, the labor organizing arm of Philly Socialists that began this work a few years before COVID.

Formative struggles like 2019’s unsuccessful drive for a union at Cake Life Bake Shop on Frankford Avenue were disrupted by the pandemic, which changed the terrain entirely. “The pandemic kind of heightened the contradiction there,” Zastempowski. “It’s like, ‘I am risking my life to serve you something that’s not really an essential product.”

Historically, the odds of these kinds of shops unionizing are long. Only 1.2% of private sector “food services and drinking places” are unionized, according to a Department of Labor fact sheet from last year. But personal experience gives Zastempowski confidence the tide will turn in Philly.

Things changed dramatically once the Korshak union reached out to Workers United, he said. The umbrella organization lent practical support, like offering office space, as well as strategic guidance.

“Workers United really helped us kind of bring in, like, ‘This is what’s in everyone else’s contract, this is how you negotiate,’” Zastempowski recalled. This is the kind of advice they hope to share as part of Local 80.

The greatest revelation of all was that they could gain access to Korshak Bagels’s books. As a recognized union negotiating a contract, workers must have access to the shop’s finances to keep their proposals realistic.

“We can’t demand so much that we destroy the business, because without the business there also is no union,” Zastempowski quipped. Beyond wages, the inside look gave life to new ideas.

One coworker, a former head chef familiar with kitchen finances, realized there was breathing room for more options on the menu that could potentially bring in more revenue. At that point, they started crafting recipes.

The sandwiches have become a successful addition to Korshak Bagels’s menu, said Fender, the Korshak union bargaining committee member. “Once we got quite a few sandwiches going, we started doing sandwiches made to order to-go,” she explained. The effort also made it clear to the owner that the union was serious about the shop’s success.

Unlike the stereotypical “management” figure, Korshak appreciated it. Having workers connected identifiably in a union “allows for a vulnerability,” Korshak said. “That vulnerability allows for the idea that nothing has to stay exactly the same.”

Maintaining the right to strike

Korshak workers helped break new ground when their union refused to accept a no-strike clause. These clauses, wherein workers agree not to strike for the duration of the contract, are standard in many union agreements, and including one was part of the Philadelphia Joint Board’s counsel.

Korshak workers weren’t interested.

When the team met with PJB staff to discuss the clause, they said, “We’re never going to do it,” according to Fender, who added, “Withholding labor is the ultimate power that workers will always have over bosses. That’s the one thing that we can withhold if we’re being treated badly.”

Instead, the Korshak union’s contract includes a “strike process clause,” meaning union members retain the right to strike in case of egregious violations of the contract, per Fender.

Day-to-day work hasn’t transformed wholesale since, employees say, but raises went from $1 to $3.50 an hour, workers negotiated 20 extra hours of paid time off, and everyone has much greater clarity on workplace policy. That’s made it all worthwhile — and the distinction of being the first Local 80 union is an added bonus.

“With other bosses and with other companies, it’s going to be much harder to fight for a strike process clause in lieu of a no-strike clause,” Fender admitted. “But I want our win in that regard to be very public, so that more people feel like they can at least try.”

And try they will.

“We do take inspiration from the contract that Korshak was able to get,” said an anonymous barista who’s currently part of an underground campaign being assisted by Local 80. The strike process clause “is pretty historic, at least in a local sense, and we also want to not have a no-strike clause in our contract,” they said.

This worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has been with their employer for nearly four years, and took part in some of the pre-pandemic organizing. They believe the need to build strong relationships with coworkers has only been exacerbated by COVID, and a core problem still remains: wages.

“While wages now do look different in the industry from when that spreadsheet circulated, the world has also gotten so much more expensive,” they said. “So that point of agitation remains really relevant.”

Local 80’s logo Credit: Tabitha Arnold

‘Worker-led’ organizing, instead of driven by union staff

Another anonymous worker, a 9-year vet in Philly specialty coffee, has found the process speedier than expected. Their shop’s workers reached out to the PJB about three months ago, and they’re set to go public by seeking union recognition within weeks.

The worker, who has union experience from time in the performing arts industry, said they trust Local 80 leadership because before becoming organizers, they themselves worked in food service and hospitality.

At the moment, Zastempowski is swamped: “So many cafe workers are coming to [Local 80] asking to form unions, it’s a little hard to keep up with.”

Right now, Local 80 is only a two-person team, and Zastempowski’s coworker Alex Riccio also works on national efforts, like the eight Philly Starbucks shops that have sought union recognition. That said, Zastempowski is optimistic because they’re not doing the heavy lifting: the responsibility lies with the workers.

“This is worker-led organizing,” they stressed. The Korshak union’s refusal to treat the PJB’s guidance as gospel, their firm stand on denying a no-strike clause, is evidence of that.

Philadelphia’s various socialist organizations, perhaps unsurprisingly, play a role here. Apart from Philly Workers for Dignity, recent campaigns have included members of Socialist Alternative, Philly Socialists and other groups. One of the forthcoming underground campaigns was connected to the PJB through a Philly DSA member.

Then there’s the elected officials. Zastempowski noted the consistent picket line support of City Councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks, and state Senators Nikil Saval and Elizabeth Fiedler.

But the longer one speaks to Zastempowski, the more likely they are to stress Local 80 is different.

“There’s the traditional business unionism that seems to be most prevalent in this country, which is [union] staff driven. But these campaigns are really trying to push against that, and have the workers themselves be the organizers,” Zastempowski said.

That’s the case with several of the Philly cafe campaigns expected to go public in the next few months.

“About 30% of our [workers are] on the organizing committee, which is awesome,” the anonymous worker with union experience said. Especially in the post-COVID market, “We’re all like, ‘How can we make sure our jobs are a little bit safer and more secure?’”

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Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...