Economy

Workers for a Louisville coffee shop chain publicly announced Friday their plan to unionize and seek improved wages, benefits and working conditions.

Heine Brothers’ Coffee employees and supporters held a downtown press conference at the corner of South 5th and Main Street near the chain’s PNC Tower location. They were joined by members of a branch of the 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU). They are looking to be represented by the SEIU, which includes about 3,000 Louisville workers across different industries.

Led by a committee of staffers from 15 of the chain’s 18 corporate-owned locations, the organizing workers are demanding higher hourly pay and stronger employee protections and benefits. They say that employees have felt unable to contribute to how their stores are run since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Douglass Loop Heine Brothers’ barista Noa August said at the press conference that the company’s progressive image stands in contrast to the low $9.25 hourly wage and absence of insurance eligibility that have left them overworked and in need of multiple jobs.

“Heine Brothers’ Coffee needs to respect their talented workforce enough to listen to the struggles that we are facing that have only been magnified by the COVID pandemic,” said August. “We are tired, we are stressed, we are underpaid and we cannot make ends meet with the unlivable wages and lack of benefits from Heine Brothers’ Coffee.”

Aaron Bone, who works at Heine Brothers in Northfield, spoke about the emotional difficulties faced by employees.

“We baristas are burnt out from the exploitation of our work that we have grown numb to on the daily lack of compassion shown to us by Heine Brothers’,” Bone said. “Or we find ourselves breaking down at the end of our shifts, crying in our cars.”

Labor activists and public figures also spoke in favor of the chain’s employees. Democratic State Rep. Keturah Herron of Louisville called for companies to support their workers.

“I stand here today urging Heine Brothers’, as a local business who says that they are progressive, to make sure that they stand with these workers, and make sure the workers get the things that they need,” she said.

In a statement to WHAS11, a Heine Brothers’ spokesperson pushed back against the workers’ unionizing effort.

“We have been told some Heine Brothers baristas have expressed an interest in forming a union. While we respect our employees’ right to organize, we believe that, as a locally owned and operated company, Heine Brothers is well positioned to address the ideas and concerns of our employees without the involvement of a union,” the spokesperson said.

Heine Brothers’ spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment from WFPL News.

The organizing effort is not the first instance of Heine Brothers’ employees taking action against the company. At the beginning of the pandemic, more than 30 workers across multiple locations organized a sickout over perceived health risks while working at the stores.

An April 2020 letter signed by staffers to corporate leadership petitioned for increased pay and health-related measures, with the option to be temporarily laid off in order to receive unemployment and Medicaid benefits. LEO Weekly reported that, a week later, the company offered employees an additional $3 for eight weeks through federal aid from the CARES Act, in addition to some increased health measures.

Friday’s announcement comes weeks after staffers at an East End Starbucks formalized plans to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board approved an election for that location to begin April 27 and end May 26, according to a document in the federal agency’s database.

If a majority of those Starbucks workers choose to be represented by the Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board of Workers United, they would become the company’s first store in Kentucky to unionize. Their efforts are a part of a national wave of organizing efforts by the Seattle-based chain’s employees.

Disclosure: Heine Brothers’ Coffee gives financial support to Louisville Public Media, which WFPL is part of.

Jacob is WFPL's Business and Development Reporter.