Korshak Bagels’ closure last month spurred a raft of articles and an appreciative celebration of the store’s ethos and its founder, Philip Korshak. But former employees feel their voices were missing.
Workers say they were disappointed, but not really surprised.
It’s been their typical experience with press coverage, according to Oscar Glassman, founding member of and shop steward for the Korshak union. Stories centered on the owner’s personal experience, Glassman said, “and either ignored workers or implicitly blamed us for the closure because we unionized.”
Between its owner and employees, the demise of the South Philly bagel shop brought a jumble of warm and cold feelings, including genuine concern for each other, and real frustration that this is how it all ends for what was a truly atypical site for organized laborers.
Korshak was a key shop for Local 80, a Workers United-affiliated union organizing food service workers. It had the only Local 80 staff working under the terms of a ratified contract. It was also the only place where the owner agreed to share the business’s finances with the union
“That measure of respect, I think, is really beautiful and really great,” store founder Korshak told Billy Penn. “At the heart of the very beginning of [Local 80], I think that was the idea.”
The store’s end was something of a blow to the burgeoning labor movement, which has also seen turbulence elsewhere: A rare union decertification vote at Philly’s Good Karma Cafe ended one of the more troubled attempts to unionize.
Local 80’s aim is to rebound, and soon, said Lily Fender, a former Korshak employee who left to work full time for Workers United.
Staff at four stores — Ultimo Coffee, Elixr Coffee, ReAnimator Coffee Roasters and Eeva, a pizzeria owned by ReAnimator’s proprietors — are closer than ever to ironing out their first contracts, Fender said. “We’re hoping to have contracts wrapped in October, November at the very latest.”
Who gets to make decisions?
Anna Wright knew they were in a unique space for food service when they joined the Korshak team.
“Phil always claimed to be different from other bosses,” Wright told Billy Penn. In so many ways that was true, they said. Though it took months of hard negotiations, Korshak eventually agreed to provide what Glassman called “closer to fair wages” of $16/hr, and PTO. He acquiesced to the staff’s bottom-line-boosting suggestion to add sandwiches to the store’s menu.
But he also had an unswaying focus on his particular vision for the store, Wright said.
“We went above and beyond because we could see how hard Phil was overworking himself,” said Wright. “We wanted to make his life easier.”
Offers to help manage the store’s social media presence, for instance, were turned down. (Korshak built the brand on his poetry-filled Instagram posts, honed during a years-delayed opening.) So was a request for a more detailed menu, so workers wouldn’t have to talk through the entire list with each new customer.
Wright also took issue with the idea that Korshak’s relentless work schedule was essential to running the business, citing the shop’s last week. With daily long lines, they said, the proprietor spent most of his time swapping stories and farewells with customers.
“It was just such a glaring sign that Phil could’ve took a day off this whole time,” said Wright. “He very easily could have gone home because we know how to run his shop without him.”
Glassman, the shop steward, summed up frustration. “His idea of how to reduce labor costs was not to make workers’ labor more efficient but more productive, and within the same confines that he had already set.”
Korshak, for his part, doesn’t agree with Local 80’s belief that the shop could’ve eventually turned a profit. He’s reluctant to say much on the issue. “It’s been made clear to me that the people who speak for the workers are the union, not me,” he told Billy Penn.
Told about the store’s closure a month in advance, all of the workers Billy Penn reached are still looking for their next gig, and trying to secure three weeks of wages via GoFundMe.
What’s next for Local 80
Fender, the Local 80 rep, said it would be great if other independent cafe owners followed Korshak’s lead and opened their books to unionizing staff. Without it, “the only thing workers have to go off of is what they know they need to live and thrive,” they said.
Still, using their needs as a compass, workers at Ultimo, Elixr, ReAnimator, and Eeva are close. “We’ll be pushing to get these contracts done,” said Fender.
One of the more surprising terms of the Korshak Bagels agreement will remain in the mix, per Fender: the exclusion of a no-strike clause. No-strike clauses are a near ubiquitous agreement meant to prevent workers under contract from legally striking, but Local 80 wants to reject that norm.
While no longer a member of Local 80 except in spirit, former doughmaker Glassman thinks the union’s future is bright.
“I actually don’t think it’s a huge setback,” they said, of the situations at Korshak Bagels and Good Karma. “We’re gonna continue to add more and more shops to Local 80.”
What might appear to be a low point could be the calm before the storm.
“This is a hard hit to see two Local 80 shops fall off,” said Fender. “But I think workers are more determined than ever to get what they deserve.”