Organizing Detroit: Carrying on the struggle at Great Lakes Coffee
Not only did baristas from other coffee shops and workers from various unions show up at the rally, but customers of the Midtown location also came out to show their support for Great Lakes Coffee workers. PW

The workers from the Midtown location of Great Lakes Coffee – under the moniker Comrades in Coffee – have officially gone on strike. Earlier this year, the coffee shop shut its doors, laying off the staff indefinitely, after workers demanded stricter measures on COVID protections, PPE, and an increase in pay.

While the coronavirus was surging, only five workers remained healthy and thus able to work. Without anyone else to run the store, Beck Kaster and Lea Green had been on their fourth shift in a row when they decided to email management with their demands. “After that I was on Zoom calls [with fellow workers] all night to figure next steps,” recalls Kaster in an interview with People’s World.

When management failed to respond, the workers reached out to UNITE HERE local 24, which had successfully organized workers at two hotels in the city in 2018.

A rally was held last week in front of the Midtown location to signify the official beginning of the strike. The rally brought out the likes of U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib and Detroit City Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero in support.

Not only did baristas from other coffee shops and workers from various unions show up at the rally, but customers of the Midtown location also came out to show their support.

“The support we’re receiving is overwhelming – local support further validates our statements that we are part of the community,” Green stated. “We care about our customers and they care about us – that is something I found very emotionally supportive.”

This support is reflective of what the workers at Great Lakes coffee put into their jobs. As Kaster argues, “We care about the community more than [the owners] do; we’re not trying to run this business into the ground.

“We love our job – this is not happening because we hate our jobs. We love the relationship we have with the customers. What we do not love is how we are treated, how we are undervalued,” added Green. “Your business is only as good as your baristas.”

The Comrades are not accepting anything less than full union recognition

President of UNITE HERE Local 24, Nia Winston, stated that “Recognition strikes are not very common, but like all strikes this one will last for however long it takes until Great Lakes Coffee recognizes UNITE HERE Local 24 as the collective bargaining representative for the workers, and that the owners come to the bargaining table in an agreement for a fair first contract.”

“We’re hoping for the miracles to come to us on the side….but I personally expect them to union bust at every single turn,” Kaster added warily. “If they accept and acknowledge the union, it can only better them – if we’re not healthy, their business is going to fail.”

Union coffee for a union city. PW

Winston also noted some of the miracles already at play in this strike: “These workers are very inspiring. Normally, when a workplace decides to organize, the first call or meeting is nothing but crickets.” Not only did all the workers of Great Lakes Coffee show up to that first meeting, they had their union cards signed and a contract already drafted. “These workers are extraordinary,” added Winston.

“It’s all very inspiring, it makes me very hopeful and proud,” Detroit City Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero stated when asked about her stance on the striking workers. “I don’t come from a union family, I never had the privilege to organize in a union. I’m very grateful for the people doing the organizing. For me, it’s a sign of hope and things to come.”

“I know it’s going to be hard and we ask a lot of our workers – when I was waiting tables, I was making $2 an hour. No one was organizing, and it was scary – you felt alone,” Santiago-Romero continued. “The public has been taught that businesses aren’t able to meet workers’ demands – that’s not true, they are capable of doing their business model differently. You need to not see workers as just part of your business, they are what keeps [the business] going.”

Council Member Santiago-Romero also pointed out that City Council can pass local legislation in helping to protect workers, notably compensation, of which she is currently researching.

Santiago-Romero remains hopeful.

“I’m so glad that workers realize they have this power now,” she added. “I just want to thank them, I’m honored to be alive and share in time of this moment.”

Another rally was held in front the Meijer Rivertown Market, which houses a Great Lakes Coffee shop within, where Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Nia Winston, and Lea Green spoke to a crowd of supporters from all political walks of life.

Out there picketing, holding signs, urging Meijer customers to sign petitions, and garnering more support were members of the DSA, One Fair Wage, president of Michigan’s AFL-CIO Ron Bieber, members of Socialist Alternative, 313CC, artist/activist Jex Blackmore, members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Detroit Club of the CPUSA, to name but a few. It was a veritable “who’s who” in Detroit activism and politics.

This isn’t the only struggle happening in Detroit right now. Hospitality workers’ rights have been especially at risk during the pandemic with many hotels reducing overhead by no longer offering housekeeping services unless requested.

“UNITE HERE Local 24 has represented hospitality workers in the Detroit area for over a century,” President Nia Winston pointed out. “As the hospitality workers’ union, we are always fighting for an economy that works for everyone, including low-wage workers in a predominantly non-union industry [populated by a] majority who are women, women of color, and immigrants.”

“Looking ahead to the post-pandemic recovery, our biggest “struggle” right now is to ensure that as our industry recovers from being among the hardest hit by COVID-19 lockdown measures, workers in hospitality are included in that recovery—and are able to come back stronger than before,” she added.

A mile up the road, the Graduate Employee’s Organizing Committee, or GEOC, is currently in bargaining talks with Wayne State University. The committee has had a hand in both fighting for workers’ rights for graduate students and advocating for survivors of sexual assault

Detroit is unsettled and there is a general feeling of dissatisfaction in the air. But something is different this time.

We can no longer believe in some passive line like “Detroit’s starting to return” or “the city is coming back” because this is part of the problem itself: Detroit is “coming back” regardless and has been for several years already. The question is how will Detroit come back – which is just another way of anticipating the question “at what expense will Detroit come back?” What will remain of Detroit when it does “come back?”

We all know what Detroit has had to fight through, but to what is it “returning” exactly?

Such phrases are usually indicating a thriving business scene that attracts young professionals right out of college – as in what companies like Quicken Loans and LinkedIn have been doing as with opening offices downtown; or sometimes “coming back” means new construction, like boutique hotels starting to open up, or like when the Ilitch Holdings company developed “District Detroit:” an area of the city which saw the construction of the massive Little Caesars Arena at the heart of several new parking lots.

If this is what Detroit had to “come back” to be a notable city again, then the benchmarks for a city reborn are radically indifferent toward the very people who “make the motor move.” It should be no wonder that populating cities with corporations, hotels, restaurants, and parking lots would incite some critical unrest.

What examples like the workers’ strike at Great Lakes Coffee showcase is that this “version” of the city – a home to corporations or a place to be reaped by real estate opportunists – is incompatible with the very people who live and work here. Indeed, plenty of young professionals will get by without concerns of job security or affording rent and groceries; but the relationship itself will always be antagonistic – it will always favor the owners, management, the landlords, anyone with fluid (or can be as mobile as their) capital. That is to say those most affected by a city “coming back” are students, the elderly, those on fixed incomes, the disabled, the unhoused, refugees, immigrants, those working “unskilled” jobs – such as those in the service, hospitality, and care industries – and the indebted.

The people forgotten and left behind in a city that “returns” are often those who were already here, those who wake up uncertain if they can stay or have to leave, and those who can only afford to be forced out.

The combination of the demands for workers’ rights – for dignity and safety – and the love of one’s community that Comrades in Coffee touts betrays the contradictory nature of not only a city’s need to “return” but also a city’s desire to do so.

Detroit isn’t corporations; Detroit is its workers. Detroit isn’t the wealth of its property or real estate within city limits; Detroit is the perpetually divided and insecure: questions like “will we wake up with water?”, “will we have heat tomorrow?”, “where are our jobs today?” are not answered by corporations moving in, they are obscured, hidden, and effaced. These questions can only begin to be answered politically, and bringing the political into the workplace – into any depoliticized area – is the only way to address what the city needs and desires.

It’s important to point out that these strikes aren’t “dead” anachronisms – relics from an “old Detroit” which are more rituals in nostalgia than anything else. Unfortunately, Detroiters can’t afford to be so idealistic about returning to a “better time” in Detroit’s history. To be sure, this isn’t simply the spirit of Detroit shining through, either: this is repeating Detroit, this is beginning again, this is working through the past failures and starting over. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.”

Detroit is beginning again.

Visit Comrades in Coffee in order to support and join the fight.


Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.