Struggle continues as workers win union at Remedy House café

Buffalo, New York

Workers at the Remedy House café in Buffalo won voluntary recognition of their newly formed union Feb. 8 after two days of picketing. They had gone on strike after owners Andrew Trautman and Justin Smith fired their lead organizer, Meghan Sullivan, while she was delivering a letter announcing the workers’ intent to unionize. The union is affiliated with Workers United, which began the Starbucks union drive in Buffalo

Workers at Remedy House Café, Buffalo, New York.  Credit: Richard Bensinger

The owners have since claimed in a public statement that the decision to eliminate Sullivan’s position and the positions of four other workers had been made days prior. The union plans to fight for her reinstatement.

During the picketing, the owners called the police on several occasions, though the police took no action against demonstrators. The newly formed union was supported in their picketing by members of other Workers United affiliates, including workers from Starbucks and Lexington Co-op, a local grocery store.

In an interview with Workers World, Remedy House employee Bailey Arena described the victory as “bittersweet” saying, “We have been recognized by the company as a union but without [Meghan] being reinstated, so I guess that’s going to go into litigation.”

Arena described the conditions that drove the unionization effort, including sanitary and safety issues, issues with pay and a manager who sexually harassed and verbally abused employees. Rats and roaches run rampant in the kitchen, she said, adding that the owners, unwilling to pay the city for extra garbage totes, instructed employees to store refuse in a van used to transport food from an annex kitchen. Power outages forced workers to go without air conditioning on 90 F days last summer.

One employee fell through a broken step to the basement. Another was told by a manager to get back to work immediately after suffering a concussion from the low basement ceiling. That same manager sexually harassed and assaulted at least two former employees off-site, one of whom he retaliated against for rebuffing his unwanted advances by cutting hours and attempting to, in Arena’s words, “ice her out.”

The owners let the manager go for unrelated reasons, despite a litany of complaints and several meetings with the owners regarding his behavior. Remedy House had not required its employees to attend sexual harassment training until very recently, even though many employees had been working there for years.

Lack of transparency

Lack of transparency about pay is an issue for several employees, with several being unable to access electronic pay stubs, as they were not instructed how to do so. Last month, when several employees had paychecks bounce, the owners blamed a glitch with their payroll service. However, prodded by Arena, they admitted that they simply did not have the money for those checks.

The owners have cited financial woes in their public comments about the unionization efforts, but have failed to take responsibility for these woes or for placing the brunt of their impact squarely on the shoulders of their workers. For instance, their annex kitchen in Lackawanna (a suburb of Buffalo) was improperly zoned and received several stop-work orders and fines — the owners responded by summarily laying off all the workers there.

The owners had promised lead union organizer Sullivan a raise that never materialized, and she had to meet with them on several occasions to resolve issues with missing pay. The meeting at which she was fired — union letter in hand — had been called  under this pretext.

The union plans to fight for her reinstatement and believes that it has legal backing for that demand. Said Arena: “It doesn’t matter if [the owners] didn’t know about [the union], just the timing that she had the papers in hand, and if the 10 of us knew about it, there’s inference that they knew about it too.”

Sullivan even asked the owners if they were sure they wanted to fire her, since they knew it would be grounds for a retaliation claim. They fired her anyway.

When the owners came out to the picket line to voluntarily recognize the union, they asked workers when the union would officially be formed. A worker replied that “the union already exists, you just didn’t recognize it until now!” Unions are the result of workers organizing and don’t require the bosses’ permission.

Keller O'Dekirk

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Keller O'Dekirk

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