Part Three: Heine Brothers’ and Sunergos: Louisville’s anti-union coffee shops

This is part three in a series of stories that center around Louisville’s local coffee scene: a battleground of ongoing spiritual and class warfare between Christians and queers, workers and business owners. The purpose of the series is not to publicly drag local businesses or individuals, but to trace the connections between those businesses/individuals to unjust + mutually reinforcing power structures. The last installment exposed local coffee chains Sunergos and Quills’ ties to anti-Black and anti-queer religious institutions. This installment analyzes and evaluates the anti-union stances of Sunergos and Heine Brothers’, using their own company values as the standard. We reached out to both companies to offer the opportunity to comment, and received a response from Heine Brothers’, who declined the opportunity, deferring to the union. We did not hear back from Sunergos.

A note about boycotts: According to the baristas who are fighting to unionize locally, or who have successfully unionized and are in the negotiation stage, our patronage and tips are still needed more than ever. So rather than boycotting, they ask that we tip generously, follow the unions on social media, and check in regularly to see how we can best support them. 

The Workplace Dictatorship

Marxist economist and professor Richard D. Wolff describes the capitalist workplace as “one of the most profoundly undemocratic institutions on the face of the Earth”—in other words, a dictatorship. In a democracy, Professor Wolff reasons, any person whose life is affected by a decision, has a say in that decision. And in the capitalist workplace, it’s the opposite: one or two individuals exercise total authority over the vast majority of people, and workers have no say in the decisions that affect them. Don’t like your schedule? Find another job. Can’t live on $12 an hour? Good luck finding an employer in this industry that pays more. The owner can discipline the worker, or fire her for no reason at all, but the worker can neither discipline nor fire her employer. If the owner wants to drastically cut the worker’s hours, schedule her outside of her availability, require her to serve unmasked customers during a pandemic, or even shut down her workplace with no advance notice, he can do so without repercussions.

To quote Professor Wolff: “If you believe in democracy, then how in the world can you justify not instituting it in the place where we spend most of our adult lives?”

In the capitalist workplace/dictatorship, the worker’s interests conflict with the owner/dictator’s. This is because the number one rule of capitalism is “maximize profit at all costs.” The business that doesn’t follow this rule will sooner or later fail. Since anything that would improve the worker’s quality of life, like higher wages, longer paid breaks, more paid sick leave, safer working conditions, a lighter workload, a more inclusive work environment, etc., cuts into the owner’s profits, it’s against his interests to provide these things for the worker. Conversely, anything that increases the business’s profits—lower wages, shorter breaks, no paid sick leave, etc.—is against the worker’s interests, that is, it decreases her quality of life.

And because the capitalist workplace is a dictatorship, not a democracy, the employer’s interests always win out.  

Of course, the employer knows that if the conditions are too awful, the worker will quit and go work somewhere else. The smart employer gives just enough to have a slight edge over the competitor, and not a penny more. If he can’t compete with the competitor’s wages, he’ll find other means to seduce the worker: perks, flexible scheduling, etc. If he can just convince the worker that the conditions here are roughly the same as, or better than, the conditions over there, the worker will have no real incentive to leave. 

When there is a worker shortage, like we have seen at various points in the pandemic, employers feel more pressure to compete for workers’ labor. In these moments, the working conditions improve slightly. A coffee company might bump its starting rate from $8.50 to $9.50. Its competitor might go big and bump theirs to $12—not out of the kindness of their heart, obviously, but to attract and retain more and better workers, decreasing turnover and all the costs it entails. But this situation is always temporary, and when the economy stabilizes, the power shifts back to the employer.

Short of a revolution, there are very few avenues for workers in the U.S. to have a say in workplace decisions. The first avenue is the worker co-op, where workers own the business and decisions are made one worker, one vote. The worker co-op is the most democratic avenue, because each worker gets equal say in how the business runs and where the profits go. Unfortunately, starting a co-op can be risky and difficult, especially in the South (though we’re working on changing that). The second avenue, which is relatively low-risk and is accessible to most workers, is the workers union.

Heine Brothers’: local, liberal, and anti-union

A workers union is an organization of workers who join together and use their strength in numbers to negotiate for better working conditions, such as better pay and benefits, better schedules, safer and more inclusive working conditions, etc. When the pandemic shined a light on the inadequate work conditions “essential workers” are expected (indeed, required) to endure, we saw a surge in organizing activity at major companies all across the U.S., including Amazon, Apple, Starbucks, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, and Home Depot. Today, support for unions is at a 57 year high, with 71% of Americans approving of labor unions.

Heine Brothers’ was the first local coffee chain to unionize, following in the footsteps of local Starbucks workers’ first successful union campaigns. (Currently, 260 Starbucks stores have unionized, and 46 more have pending elections.) When HB baristas’ campaign went live back in April 2022, the company released this statement:

We have been told some Heine Brothers baristas have expressed an interest in forming a union.  While we respect our employees’ right to organize, we believe that, as a locally owned and operated company, Heine Brothers is well positioned to address the ideas and concerns of our employees without the involvement of a union.  From what we have heard, union proponents are already misinforming other baristas and the public.  For instance, we understand they have erroneously claimed some Heine Brothers employees are paid $9 per hour, which is far less than any of our employees are paid.  We have always worked to keep our company and stores healthy and positive places to work, where all are treated with respect and dignity, and we remain committed to these core values.

As tempted as I am, as a long-time former employee, to unpack the assertion that $9 per hour is “far less” than any employee makes, I’ll instead focus on the suggestion that being locally owned somehow makes the company “well positioned to address the ideas and concerns of their employees without the involvement of a union.” I suggest that “address” is the operative word here, a word no doubt chosen for its vagueness. After all, the Supreme Court “addressed” the nation’s ideas and concerns about reproductive rights by ignoring the popular majority’s wishes and revoking said rights. “Address” does not have to imply cooperation, negotiation, or any sort of democratic process. 

The same vague wording appears in the statement Heine Brothers’ released when the union filed charges against the company for anti-union activities: “Heine Brothers’ is a homegrown company founded on the principles of fairness and doing the right thing. We listen and respond to all of our employees.” Notice how, like the word “address,” the phrase “listen and respond” doesn’t need to imply cooperation, negotiation, or any sort of democratic process. We can give countless examples of this. When HB baristas petitioned during COVID for the option to file for unemployment (rather than being strung along with extremely reduced hours), the company “listened and responded” with a company-wide message stating that if baristas needed hours, they could pick up shifts at other stores (with no acknowledgment of the added stress and health risks this would entail). When Black queer and trans employees expressed the pain and anger they felt when the company made workers remove the Black Lives Matter signs they’d hung in their stores during the protests following Breonna Taylor’s murder, the company “listened and responded” by explaining their need to remain “politically neutral” as a business, only changing their mind when they were actively being cancelled.

Contrary to their statements, I would argue that Heine Brothers’ is well positioned to not address their employees’ ideas and concerns. As a local business, they are able to appeal to the myth of the small “mom and pop” neighborhood coffee shop that’s still figuring it’s sh*t out (despite the fact that they outgrew that trope long ago). And as a self-proclaimed “progressive” business in a sea of conservative Christian coffee shops, when they are accused of not listening to their workers they can point to their gender neutral restrooms and pronoun buttons to show that, actually, they are ahead of the curve. In no way do I mean to downplay the importance of queer and trans-inclusive practices in the workplace: I am just highlighting how low-stakes DEI initiatives (low-stakes for the company, that is) can be used to distract from other deep issues, such as inadequate representation of BIPOC in leadership roles, inadequate wages, or resistance to baristas unionizing.

A former Heine myself, I happily accepted the company’s low starting rate because I was so relieved to no longer be working for abusive transphobes. I sang their praises to my community, recruiting countless queers, trans folks, and POC over the five years I worked there. As a queer and transgender service industry old-timer, I could empathize when the young folks complained about the pay–but the way I can empathize with sixteen-year-old-me’s angsty poetry: like yes, I feel your pain, but in a few years you’ll have been through much worse. I now understand, thanks to political education and involvement in the labor movement, that just because something could be worse (or just because something is the “industry standard”) does not make it right or fair or unchangeable.

I still believe that, as an out white trans man, I had it better at Heine Brothers’ than I would have at most other jobs. I’ll always remember the relief and gratitude I felt after I had been there a little while, my trauma responses quieted down, and I realized I was going to be okay. Yet even with my whiteness and cis-passing privilege, my experience was not all positive. Looking back after some time and distance, I can see the various ways and times my trans identity, my loyalty to the company, and my dedication to social change were taken advantage of; the highly specialized emotional and educational labor that I did “on the clock,” which is to say, at my regular hourly rate, and that I therefore wasn’t adequately compensated for; and the instances of subtle gaslighting I chose to ignore. Would I say that these microaggressions were malicious? No. I wouldn’t even say they were intentional. But having good intentions isn’t good enough. Not when you’re an employer, someone who exercises unilateral power over others.

Realizing that my trust in and devotion to Heine Brothers’ was partly a trauma response has been a bitter pill to swallow. I spent half of a decade, the first half of my thirties, my first five years in Louisville, being the best employee and manager I could be, and doing everything I could to help make the company a safer space for other marginalized workers. During that time, I got sober, grieved the end of two significant relationships, published two books of poems, started my professional blogging and speaking career, learned how to live on my own without alcohol, and grew into my gender. The relative stability and security the job provided, after years of struggle and tumult, is the reason I was able to heal and build a better life for myself. It’s the most continuity I’ve experienced, professionally and socially, as an adult. Part of me feels guilty about the ways my thoughts and feelings have evolved, especially since I still care about many of those folks. As a social animal, I long for community, characters I recognize from previous chapters. But more than that, I long for a freer life, and a freer world.

Sunergos: local, conservative christian, and anti-union

Sunergos baristas announced their decision to unionize August 26th, two weeks before Heine Brothers’ baristas won their own union election. The company followed Heine Brothers’ lead, choosing to fight rather than support the workers’ union efforts. 

How can people who disagree on everything from trans rights to abortion (e.g. Matthew Huested of Sunergos and Mike Mays of Heine Brothers’) share the same sentiments about workers unions? Because the profit motive is bipartisan: it doesn’t discriminate. This is also why a worker’s standard of living is going to be roughly the same regardless of whether they work for a Christian conservative or a non-religious liberal.

Like Heine Brothers’, Sunergos claims that their primary concern is that the union will interfere with the healthy and open dynamic they have with their employees. “There’s a real risk of there being a public dialogue that demonizes either managers and owners, and or baristas, and workers… If I could make any appeal… it would be that we are not at odds with each other to my knowledge in our stores” Sunergos co-owner Matthew Huested told Courier Journal. 

Brian Miller, Huested’s business partner, adds:

there’s a potential risk of that [public dialogue] defining the culture of our internal relationships versus just like, direct and forthcoming communication and accommodating. […] We hold the value that we want our employees to be happy and to provide well for them, and to give opportunity for advance, and the idea that a mediator would be necessary for that hasn’t really entered our minds.

It’s not hard to see what’s going on here: Huested and Miller are playing dumb. As any manager, leadership consultant, or therapist will tell you, conflict is unavoidable, and absence of conflict is actually indicative of an unhealthy relationship, a relationship where one party does not feel safe expressing their true thoughts and feelings. Huested and Miller didn’t make it this far in business by not understanding this. And if there truly is not conflict in their stores, it should be all the more obvious why their workers are unionizing. But Huested and Miller adopt the role of helpless bystanders, as if the outcomes they allege to be concerned about could only be prevented by the workers’ surrendering, as if they themselves couldn’t surrender and accept the union.

These are successful businessmen who know how capitalism works. And they know enough about how unions work to not want their workers to form one. I therefore suggest that it’s not “potential conflict” they are worried about, but existing conflict being resolved in a way that hurts their profits, that is, in a way that puts their workers interests on a par with their own.

What would Jesus / Anne Braden do?

“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and man.” 

– Mathew 6:24

Imagine having the power to fire every single person who works under you, and thinking that you’re on an even playing field. Imagine paying someone $9.50 (or even $15) an hour in 2022 and expecting them to trust that you have their best interests in mind. Imagine denying your workers a very reasonable accommodation during a pandemic, and then claiming you “listen and respond to all of your employees.” The mental gymnastics will make your brain explode.

Now imagine your workers coming to you—you who has total control over the profits, you with the power to fire them for no reason, you who have more control over their lives than any other person—and asking you to support their decision to unionize. Imagine them standing there, vulnerable and wholly transparent about their motives and intentions, giving you the opportunity to work with them: an invitation. Can you imagine a better opportunity to build trust, to strengthen this relationship, to show them you trust them to know what’s in their own best interest? Will you hand over just a morsel of your power to them (because compared to what you have, that’s all the power that unionizing will get them—a morsel), so that they can have some say in the decisions that affect them, and which you keep saying they’re a part of?

I’m not a Christian, but I feel like it’s obvious what Jesus would do in this situation. You know, Jesus—the guy who famously said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. I’m pretty sure he’d be on the same side as Anne Braden, the anti-racist revolutionary from Louisville who actually worked as a trade unionist for a time, and whose words were printed on Heine Brothers’ paper cups for years. 

The following statements were made pre-pandemic, before words like “profit” and “work” and “paycheck” were so politically charged, before an employer’s self-proclaimed values became something an employee might, you know, hold them accountable to.

Huested remarks:

As a Christian, I don’t just think of work as a thing that I do to get a paycheck to buy food I want or the things I need. I think of it more along the lines of, ‘This is somehow an essential part of my being. This is something given to me as a creature and as a human and as an image-bearer.’ So that shapes the way I think about work and what I believe about work”

Technically this statement is true: Huested doesn’t work to get a paycheck to buy food, because as an owner, he doesn’t get a paycheck. Nor does he “work” in the sense that his employees do. He owns the equipment and writes the paychecks, and in turn gets his employees labor, as well as the fruits of said labor.

“But the profits are the return he gets for taking a risk,” someone might object. To this I’d respond: if taking a risk makes an employer worthy of profits, then all of his workers should be getting a cut of those profits. After all, they took a risk too—by choosing to work for this employer, as opposed to a different one, with no guarantee that they will get the hours they need, that their bosses will honor their availability, or that they won’t be terminated on a whim. Workers take risks all the time, and not only do they not get any of the profits, they are also given no control over the outcome of taking that risk. That control belongs exclusively to the employer, whose interests (maximizing profits) conflict with their own.

But it must be nice to not have to think about work as something you do to get a paycheck, and to instead be able to think about it in these loftier, more poetic terms.  

This is a statement Huested made in an article published by The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where both he and Miller went to school:

When we scoop and shake our wholesale coffee into bags [….] one of the things that I always think about is the accuracy of measure. God loves honest scales – that thought has grown in me, both to good ends and to make me uncomfortable in some ways. What I mean by that is that our financial dealings with people – whether that’s right here across the counter, or in our purchasing from vendors – must be something that rolls out of the heart of God. And I want to learn to be right about that.

In this quote, Huested appears to have a conscience about his dealings with vendors and customers. He goes on to reference “indigenous people who are laborers” (i.e., coffee farmers) as “people who suffer….in the name of coffee profit,” but makes no mention of the laborers who suffer in the name of coffee profit in his shops. Does his conscience extend to those dealings, as well? Does God love honest payrolls, or just honest scales?

Moments like this are litmus tests for companies who outwardly align themselves with progressive values (e.g., Heine Brothers’), Christian values (e.g., Sunergos), or really any values that entail treating their employees with fairness, dignity, and respect. What does it mean when a company fails this test? To me it means their values are performative at worst, and tepid at best: that they only “walk their talk” when it helps their profits, or when it doesn’t threaten them.

Sunergos and Heine Brothers’ have an immense amount of power in Louisville, and an even greater amount of power in the lives of their workers. As self-proclaimed Christians, or self-proclaimed progressives, they ought to be hyper-vigilant of that power, and the example they set for other employers. I think Jesus and Anne Braden would agree that this is the bare minimum.


*All images but my selfie are from the union campaigns’ socials. (Links below.)

HB worker’s union | Sunergos worker’s union IG | Sunergos worker’s union twitter

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