Baristas face brutal union-busting campaign at DMV-area Compass Coffee chain
Compass Coffee worker Joseph Babin. | Photo courtesy of Andrew Derek Strachan (IG: @itakeshots)

Over the past several weeks, workers at the Compass Coffee chain in the Washington, D.C., area have gone public with their union organizing campaign and have been hit with a major and illegal union-busting counter-offensive by their employer. People’s World sat down with three organizers of the campaign to learn about their stories, how they got involved with the organizing effort, and why the union is important in light of the attacks by their employer:

–  Rebekah Edwards, barista trainer at the Rosslyn location

–  Joseph Babin, supervisor of the 1703/849 locations

–  Cameron Call, supervisor at the K St. and I St. locations and organizing committee member

People’s World: Could you tell us a little bit about how this campaign got started and what led you to being involved? Were you inspired by the Starbucks Workers United movement?

Rebekah: This campaign was already well established when I joined in November 2023. I first started at Compass in October last year and joined the campaign as soon as I heard there was a plan to unionize.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Derek Strachan (IG: @itakeshots)

Personally, I think of unions as an essential tool for our current socio-political landscape. Unions allow the working class to advocate for themselves and show up in large numbers for issues that affect a majority of Americans. What has continued to drive me forward in this union drive is the passion and belief that unions can and should be for everyone. Regardless of their industry, workers deserve avenues to negotiate and have a say in their workplace.

Working with Workers United is a wonderful bonus, as their expertise in the Starbucks campaign has built trust and further developed strategy as our campaign continues.

Joseph: I began at Compass one year ago this week. I have almost a decade of coffee experience and was looking for a job to treat like a hobby. I’ve always enjoyed working at an espresso bar and thought it would be fun to reconnect with the industry.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the culture at Compass Coffee was very fear-driven; Michael Haft [CEO] and Max Deem [VP of Operations] had cultivated a work environment that abused and mistreated employees. Everyone is overworked, underpaid, and chronically understaffed.

I am in my 30s but most of the workers at Compass are 18 to 24. My husband encouraged me to leave and find something less abusive, but it drove me crazy seeing these kids being treated as badly as I had been when I was their age. I had hoped the culture around food service and coffee had gotten better, but it was the worst I’d ever seen at Compass.

Having seen the wave of Starbucks cafes that had unionized, I thought it was doable at Compass, especially given how disgruntled everyone had become. I began reaching out to different labor organizations looking for help getting started and was eventually put in contact with an organizing committee that had been working on unionizing for months. I joined the organizing committee for Compass Coffee United in January.

Cameron: When I started working at Compass Coffee in August 2022, it was supposed to be a better job. I’ve worked in food service since I’ve been able to work, and I’ve been a barista since 2018. Right before taking the position at Compass, I was extremely overworked and underpaid at a small, independent coffee shop. I had assumed that a larger company would be able to pay better, provide some form of benefits, and would have better working conditions.

I quickly found that wasn’t the case.

Short-staffing amidst extremely busy rushes was common, deteriorating equipment was a frequent issue, and we were told to lie to customers about our tipping policy (we are not allowed to accept tips and there is no digital tip option, we are encouraged to tell customers that “the tip is included in the price”).

I reached out to some friends who had attempted union campaigns in food service, and they linked me up with like-minded coworkers from other locations. From there, we formed the Organizing Committee and began the underground phase of the campaign. Our first tasks were building trust with our coworkers in both our cafe locations and others, recruiting them into the union, and training and developing our skills as worker organizers.

Compass Workers draw attention to the fact that the company prevents them from getting tipped. At right is Cameron Call. | Photo courtesy of Andrew Derek Strachan (IG: @itakeshots)

Personally, I was deeply inspired by the Starbucks campaign and my own experience working in exploitative food service jobs. Seeing so many young workers building solidarity with one another and fighting against severe union-busting retaliation convinced me that we could pull this off. The amount of community support they’ve received was also emboldening, and I knew that our regulars would stand by us as well.

PW: How many stores are you organizing in this effort? And how has the community and other labor unions been supporting thus far since your campaign has been public?

Rebekah: Right now, there are seven out of 18 cafes unionizing. I work at 1201 Wilson Blvd. (Rosslyn), the only cafe in Virginia that is currently petitioning for a union. Our hope is that all Compass Coffee locations and departments (production, distribution, tech, etc.) will unionize.

The community support has been immediate. From the day we went public until now, we have seen nothing but a steady increase in public support. So much so that we are regularly getting messages from people who ask for other avenues to help. When our Twitter was experiencing significant issues with a copycat account posting inflammatory content, (the copycat account is still a problem) community support helped keep our messaging consistent. While we made posts that explained the situation, we did not have to continue bringing up the copycat account into our feed, as our community would continually call attention to the real account in a way that allowed us to not further confuse new followers.

Solidarity with sibling campaigns at Workers United is also strong; we have worked closely with Wydown United, even hosting a rally during Pride weekend at Compass Coffee’s newest location, which was formerly home of the Wydown location on 14th St. and U. We stand in solidarity as their campaign takes a new turn after management fired all the workers workers and closed the store instead of allowing their union election to proceed as scheduled.

Our campaign is constantly grounded in work and advocacy that has come before. From workers at Compass Coffee who worked to organize a union back in 2020 to cafes in the area currently unionizing, our campaign continually works to remain rooted in solidarity across industries and campaigns.

Joseph: The immediate response from our communities and customers was overwhelmingly supportive. Customers and other union members rallied with us in solidarity. Our social media has been widely shared by supportive regulars, former Compass employees, and labor organizers around the country.

Cameron: We have elections set for July 16. These are the Spring Valley, Rosslyn, Georgetown, 1301 K St., 1401 I St., 1703 H St., and 849 18th St. We will not stop with just the initial seven locations; we want to include every Compass worker at every location. I predict that we will be able to start picking up other locations once our election is settled.

We have found incredible support from the community, and especially from other labor unions in D.C. In particular, UFCW Local 400, UNITE HERE Locals 23 and 25, FCFTWG, D.C. Jobs with Justice, and the PEN Guild have come out in support.

They delivered a joint letter condemning the retaliatory union-busting tactics employed by management to the CEO, CFO, and upper management. They are willing to put additional pressure on Compass if the situation calls for it. Our regulars, as well as entirely new customers, have been coming in to talk to us and let us know that they support us. Some have even gone as far as to confront Haft, the CEO and owner, about his retaliatory practices.

PW: What union-busting tactics has your employer been engaging in? It seems they have organized a fake Twitter account, hired anti-union bosses from other companies, and engaged in a variety of possibly illegal practices. How are you all responding to these attacks?

Joseph: Since we went public, as many as 170 new hires may have been brought on to dilute the union’s strength. It is hard to get an exact up-to-date number, as we have all had our access to schedules and the employee directory revoked. Some of these new hires were CEOs and executives from Union Kitchen and other local companies, lobbyists, political staffers, or high-level lawyers. Others have been regular individuals in desperate situations who just need work.

Many of these new hires have told us that they were encouraged to vote no for the union. Several have reported that they were told they would have to pay $1,000 if the union won. Others have said they knew they were being hired as scabs. These people did not apply; they were offered jobs by family/friends who work at Compass and Union Kitchen.

In addition to mass hiring, bribes in the form of trips to Bali and Costa Rica have supposedly been offered to many individuals. Others have been promised promotions and told: “Compass would take care of them.” We have responded by being very honest with the new hires about the situation we are in; we have successfully organized a large number of new hires and they will be voting in favor of the union.

Cameron: Many workers have had their hours cut significantly, their schedules rearranged outside of their availability, and have been intimidated and written up by management for utilizing their rights (such as wearing a union pin or talking to coworkers about the union).

For example, at a meeting between Haft and staff, anyone who spoke up about management’s actions had their hours cut from the schedule the very next day. There is the issue of the fake Twitter accounts, of which there are six, who are all impersonating our official account and reaching out to supporters. We suspect they are run by management in an attempt to weaken the efficacy of our messaging and to confuse supporters.

We are responding by insisting upon our rights and confronting management over these issues, when possible. Staff have refused to remove support pins or cease speaking about the union and have shown management the NLRB guidelines that protect such actions. We have really come through for each other, on and off the floor. We are encouraging customers to leave positive reviews of our teams and in support of the union to put public pressure on the company.

We are also pursuing legal action through the NLRB, particularly over the retaliatory scheduling and the wrongful termination of an employee. We are in the process of setting up a support fund for folks who may be facing financial hardship due to retaliation. Based on the legal advice we’ve received, we expect the ULP charges to be resolved in our favor, particularly due to the obvious, clumsy, and stupid ways the company has retaliated. If necessary, we are willing to escalate to a strike and boycott, should retaliation continue past the election.

PW: How do you relate this local union campaign effort to other cafes being organized? For example, the Starbucks on P St. and the La Colombe? What advice do you have for other baristas in the DMV area or around the country about engaging in labor organizing?

Rebekah: Our campaign stands in solidarity with all workers looking to organize! I would advise workers to organize and build community with their co-workers. Let our campaign be an example of why unions work. Our CEO and company’s very loud and brash union-busting tactics only show just how scared they are of the power we all have. We haven’t even had our election yet, and they have shown their cards.

The coffee industry has been ignored for too long, and workers deserve working conditions and industry standards that are safe and liveable. We are at a turning point economically where more and more jobs are turning into “gigs” and large turnover is expected by the company – but you are not expendable. Push back, organize! We stand in solidarity with you.

Joseph: I believe our biggest advantage is the fact that we are learning from the successes (and failures) of those who came before us. We learned from Compass Coffee’s first union push and brought many of those individuals on to advise us. We learned from Starbucks. We learned from Union Kitchen. We learned from Wydown.

Joseph Babin, Rebekah Edwards, and another worker, Dani, protesting outside a Compass location. | Photo courtesy of Andrew Derek Strachan (IG: @itakeshots)

This campaign has been deeply rooted in what we know works. We have observed the failures of others and used those observations to steer our ship through rough waters. We, as a union, believe that our success is a byproduct of the labor and dedication of the hundreds who laid down the groundwork for organizing coffee workers.

We are exhausted, but we see the finish line, and we sure as hell aren’t giving up now.

My advice to others looking to unionize is this: Successful union campaigns move at an agonizingly slow pace. It must be deliberate and patient and quiet, especially when the campaign is in its infancy. Reach out to organizations like Workers United and ask for help.

Cameron: We are continuously inspired by the efforts of workers at other coffee chains and by every worker in the food service industry who is making a stand for their rights. I believe that the economic squeeze forced on the working class by way of rising prices and stagnating wages is pushing people to act.

I also believe that food service is the kind of industry where it is very easy to see the value that each worker brings to the table. In coffee, we know that the ingredients that go into a latte don’t cost $7; it is our labor that makes it valuable. And when making three drinks an hour is enough to reproduce your wage, you begin to see that the rest of the sales from that hour are pure profit, going directly to the boss. I think that we’ve had enough of accepting poor pay for hard work, and it’s time for us to get a better deal.

We want to get in touch with these campaigns, as well as workers who are looking for guidance on how to initiate such a campaign. I encourage anyone to reach out to to either link up with our Solidarity Committee or get our advice on organizing. Generally, the lessons we’ve learned are as follows:

  • 1. Be the best co-worker you can be. Build trust and community with your coworkers.
  • 2. Read up on your rights. Both to exercise them yourself and to be an authority to your co-workers for their rights.
  • 3. Act quickly. Capitalize on incidents that agitate your co-workers as soon as possible.
  • 4. Outline a detailed strategy, but be flexible in its application. Being able to pivot quickly is essential in a high-turnover, precarious industry such as food service.
  • 5. Centralize communication and decision-making. Open and democratic communication is important to ascertain a proper understanding of the situation. When decisions need to be made quickly and decisively, someone should have the authority to make that decision. Likewise, this information should be communicated in a streamlined way to preserve trust with your coworkers.
  • 6. Build relationships with customers, community organizations, and other unions. They will be essential during the public phase.
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Jamal Rich
Jamal Rich

Jamal Rich writes from Washington, D.C. where he is active with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.