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Caribou Baristas Fight for Health and Safety

22-Apr-2020Kevin Osborn

When COVID-19 broke out in the US, Caribou Coffee stayed open for business because the private company was deemed essential. Caribou Coffee has over 5,000 employees and an estimated annual revenue of $400 million, and it is owned by international JAB Holdings Company. However, during the outbreak, Caribou workers received no safety equipment, no sick time (except what is mandated by local laws), no updated safety procedures, and in some locations, workers ran out of cleaning and sanitizing supplies. While health officials are spelling dire warning, Caribou employees are implicitly told, “Choose between your paycheck, and the health of yourselves and your family.”

Workers received a response from the company “informing” them of new safety equipment and procedures that don’t exist. In about three weeks of organizing, we forced a reply from the third largest coffee company in the world. But the reply was all lies.

It was a slap in the face. When organizing at Caribou began, we didn’t know what to expect. There was hope that the public petition would push the executives to act. There was hope that the 200 callers would pressure the executives to give in to the demands. Then all we got was a letter full of lies, and managers intimidating workers with promises that “they would remember” what happened.

It’s infuriating. It was cold water on the face of every worker in our industry. The outbreak showed us that our livelihoods in this profit-driven market system are even more precarious than we realized. It has also shown that, in order to win what we deserve, we will need to organize even more Caribou workers to stand together and fight.

The days following the phone zap, we had to regroup and appreciate the uphill battle that is in front of us. Now, Caribou organizers are reaching out to coworkers in more locations and making plans to pressure the executives harder in the coming weeks. We weren’t organized enough to keep food service workers safe this month, but with enough elbow grease, Caribou workers might be safe next month.

It's not just Caribou

Our whole industry is facing a nightmare.

In some ways, being laid off has improved our lives. Most of us received raises from unemployment! But with the economic crisis, our employers will continue operating “skeleton crews” well after stay-at-home orders have been lifted. When the unemployment benefits run dry, many of our jobs simply won’t be there to return to. Faced with the very real fear of unemployment without benefits, we will feel desperate to take any wage we can get.

In other ways, this is nothing particularly new. Employees have always been left at the mercy of employers—especially in our industry. Union membership never exceeded 1.7% in the last 20 years, and the average wage stands at only $14.14 an hour. Our lives have been hard enough as it is, but COVID-19 is devastating our workforce in a way that hasn't been fully felt yet. As some companies remain open for takeout, wages are already being cut to “adjust” to the economic crisis.

Yet, we don’t have to take this on the chin. Laid off food workers across the Twin Cities eagerly spent their unemployed hours supporting the Caribou employees and finding inspiration in their fight. With the help of Twin Cities DSA, we were put to good use organizing the phone zap against Caribou executives. For the majority involved, it was the first time standing up collectively against a boss.

As we take that lesson to our shops across town, and begin organizing with our furloughed coworkers, two questions are on our minds: Are we going to go back to the way things were? Or are we going to organize?

Kevin Osborn is a laid off line cook and a member of the Minnesota Restaurant Opportunities Center (a workers center organizing in the food service industry). Kevin is also a member of Twin Cities DSA and DSA’s Reform & Revolution caucus.