A swirl of controversy has enveloped Augie’s Coffee, the specialty coffee roaster and retailer with five locations across California’s Inland Empire. That is, five former locations: the brand announced on July 4th that it would be closing all of its retail outlets indefinitely, citing fears over the coronavirus and the health and safety of its staff.
But behind the scenes at Augie’s, a simmering labor dispute (as reported by Redlands Daily Facts and others) has been underway due to health and safety concerns and resulting in the formation of a nascent union. Now members of this union claim the brand’s real motivation for shutting retail operations amount to textbook union-busting. These claims and allegations have boiled over into a series of public demonstrations, a public outcry on social media, and now a coordinated effort by the Augie’s Union and their allies at one of the nation’s largest independent union organizing groups to bring attention to this story.
On June 23rd, 2020 a group of Augie’s baristas representing some 40 employees, around 70% of the company’s retail workforce, notified the company’s ownership—Austin and Andy Amento, a father-son ownership team—of their intent to unionize. They requested voluntary recognition of the union; in response, Augie’s ownership proposed an all-staff meeting to discuss this request, presented in a Town Hall style, according to Kelley Bader, an Augie’s Union leader who spoke to Sprudge for this reporting on the collective behalf of Augie’s Union. “The meeting was simply to ask for voluntary recognition,” says Bader, who read a personal opening statement at the meeting on behalf of the union. “Each member that was willing to speak told management why they want a union and asked for recognition. It was presented to us as a town hall, but we saw it as an attempt to avoid the discussion of the union.”
Present at this meeting was Augie’s barista and Augie’s Union member Sean McLeod, who provided this public account on Instagram. “At this meeting, the majority of the employees expressed their support for the union and their reasons for doing so,” McLeod wrote on Instagram. “After all voices had been heard, Austin [Amento] closed the meeting by stating that he needed to research unions and that he’d get back to us soon.”
As late June dragged into early July, members of the Augie’s Union waited to hear word if they would be voluntarily recognized by the company, while retail operations at the cafe functioned as normal (or as normal as one can expect in 2020). But on July 4th, according to Bader and Augie’s Union, an update came from the company in the form of an email containing a single square text graphic. An identical post went out online an hour later on the company’s social media account, with comments disabled. The full text of the post reads:
The past 120 days have been unlike anything we have experienced in our over 11 years at Augie’s. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, our sole purpose was to keep as much of our Team employed for as long and safely as possible. We had to innovate to continue operations and keep the lights on, however, as time progressed we have realized that just surviving may not have been the best goal. Now with California spinning out of control with COVID-19 cases, we cannot ask and do not want to risk the health and safety of our staff, or customers.
We’ve now had firsthand experience with friends and employees at other local small businesses infected with COVID-19. We had another employee go on quarantine yesterday as a family member was in contact with the vines and we would be devastated if one of our Team Members contracted this virus. Serving coffee is not worth that; it is too big of a risk and is not the priority. We are choosing to focus on our families and do what we can to keep our neighbors and communities safe.
With that being said, July 5, we will be laying off our Team and closing all of our retail operations. This closing of stores is indefinite as we need time to reevaluate how Augie’s can operate safely in the future, given the reality of the prolonged effect of this virus.
We have had the privilege of building one of the best and brightest Teams in coffee on the planet over this past decade. The Augie’s Team has faced an uphill battle the last 120 days. COVID-19 has turned their previous role in coffee of education and preparation into the new normal that no one could have predicted; relentlessly educating about safety and protecting our customers to the best of our abilities. The stress and fatigue that each one of you feel in your lives, we feel as well. This decision to close the retail operations was not taken lightly.
We will still be roasting and shipping coffee out of our warehouse. If you need coffee for home visit us at augies.coffee
Prior to July 4th, “no one was informed about the closures whatsoever,” says Bader on behalf of Augie’s Union. “We knew only an hour before the public and it is still all we know.” Downsizing due to COVID concerns is something many small businesses have faced in 2020, but according to multiple former Augie’s employees, the company’s firings directly targeted staff who had signed on to unionization efforts in late June. This impacted dozens of cafe workers, as well as at least two warehouse workers who had signed on to the union: Michael González and Casey Hughes. “My last shift with Augie’s was on Friday,” Gonzales told Sprudge. “As I left the owner told me to have a good weekend, see you next week.” According to Bader and McLeod, employees who did not support Augie’s unionization efforts have maintained employment with the company, transitioning into office and roasting warehouse roles.
Repeated attempts to contact Augie’s Coffee for comment and clarification on their public statement have gone unanswered since the July 4th posting, including those made by both Sprudge, Redlands Daily Facts, and other news organizations with impending coverage of the story. We will update this story with comment from Augie’s Coffee if and when it becomes available.
After the layoffs were announced, Augie’s Union went live July 4th with an official Instagram account, posting a series of messages outlining their position regarding the company’s retail closures. “While the owners claim the closings are due to the pandemic,” they wrote, “the reality is that business was better than it had been in months.” McLeod took things a step further on his own account, writing, “They claim that this is due to COVID-19, but that is a lie. An outright lie. This is a union-busting technique. So many of their baristas signed up for the union that if they fired only the unionized baristas, they still wouldn’t be able to keep a single shop open.”
On July 5th, the flurry of Instagram posts and vast comment fields moved beyond Mark Zuckerburg’s internet and into the streets of Redlands, California, where dozens of baristas and members of the community showed up together for an utterly 2020 moment: a hybridized (and mask-bedecked) protest and final paycheck collection at Augie’s State Street location. The moment was captured on video by Sean McLeod, and in by photographer Amber Sarelle, whose photos appear throughout this reporting.
As of Monday, June 6th the story shows no sign of slowing. The Los Angeles outpost of national food and beverage website Eater reported has reported on the story, and Augie’s Union is supported in further media endeavors by a powerful ally: The United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America, or UE (sometimes referred to as Union for Everyone), an independent rank-and-file labor union active since the mid-1930s. “We have been working with UE from the time we decided to unionize,” says Bader on behalf of Augie’s Union. “They were the only union we trusted to advise us after looking through their policies and transparency.”
According to a July 6th media advisory issued by UE International Representative Mark Meinster, “workers at Augie’s Coffee will file an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that they were laid off in retaliation for forming a union.” The release goes on to quote Kelley Bader and Augie’s Barista Jonnie Taylor, who formerly worked at the shop’s Claremont location, “We are the ones day in and day out making coffee, forming relationships and keeping the shops running,” says Taylor in the UE advisory. “All we ask is for a voice and the respect to have a conversation. We want a say in our livelihoods and a seat at the table.”
On July 6th, twenty-some Augie’s Union members showed up to the company’s Redlands roasting headquarters and demanded to speak with the company’s ownership. According to Sean McLeod, who attended the July 6th action, they were denied audience.
In reporting this story Sprudge sought comment and clarification from Augie’s Coffee ownership. No comment was available as of press time. We will update this feature if and when comment becomes available from Augie’s Coffee.
A GoFundMe has been set up to help support members of the Augie’s Union, having raised more than $16,000 USD as of press time.
This story is developing.
Photos by Amber Sarelle used with permission.