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Labor complaint claims Coffee Tree Roasters barista was fired for supporting union

The Coffee Tree Roasters location in Shadyside.
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The Coffee Tree Roasters location in Shadyside.

Elected officials are voicing support for baristas who want to unionize at The Coffee Tree Roasters in Pittsburgh after one barista claims he was fired in retaliation for supporting the effort.

“Pittsburgh is a Union City — always has been, always will be," Mayor-elect Ed Gainey said Wednesday in a statement. "Every worker in Pittsburgh deserves the right to organize a union without retaliation or interference from management."

Employees at The Coffee Tree Roasters announced their intent to form a union with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1776 last week. Liam Tinker, a barista who appeared in an online video announcing the union campaign, said he was fired the next day.

Tinker claims he was terminated via text message after being late to his shift. But Tinker said he had never been written up before, and the termination didn’t match how other baristas have been treated.

“There is no past precedent of immediate discharge under these circumstances,” Tinker said.

The Pittsburgh-based company operates five locations in the area. Phones at all of them were disconnected when WESA attempted to reach management.

The union representing the baristas called Tinker's termination a scare tactic.

“It’s not too hard to figure out what happened here,” said Wendell Young, IV President UFCW Local 1776. “[But] I think they picked on the wrong group to do that. This is a really well-committed, well-organized group of workers.”

The National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from firing or penalizing workers for organizing or participating in a union. UFCW Local 1776 has filed an unfair labor practices charge against the coffee chain with the National Labor Relations Board.

The union's efforts are already being hailed by the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council, the region's top labor organization, and a number of federal, state and local elected officials.

Gainey, for one, called on The Coffee Tree Roasters to negotiate with union organizers Wednesday.

“In a Gainey administration, unions will always have a seat at the table," he said. "Today I join the call by elected officials from across Allegheny County to the management of Coffee Tree Roasters to negotiate with the baristas in good faith, adhere to the practices set forth by the National Labor Relations Board, allow workers a free and fair election to form a union, and reinstate any employees who have been terminated in relation to their support of unionization efforts."

Pennsylvania state Sens. Lindsey Williams, Jay Costa and Wayne Fontana released a joint statement Wednesday calling Tinker's firing, "troubling."

"Each of our districts have a Coffee Tree Roaster establishment within them, and we value the small businesses that lift up our communities and the jobs they provide for the neighborhoods we are so proud to represent," the statement reads.

"Reconsider your recent termination of Liam Tinker and demonstrate that your company will NOT retaliate against your workers," the group of Democrats said. "We urge you not to engage in any bad faith efforts moving forward while your employees work toward forming the union they have clearly stated they would like to form."

U.S. Congressman Conor Lamb also spoke in support of Tinker and the union. Lamb said Tinker's firing was proof of the need to pass President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda and the Pro Act, which would create tougher penalties for companies and executives who violate worker’s rights.

"If Liam was fired illegally, Coffee Tree only owes his job & back pay. No damages," Lamb tweeted. "That's why this happens so often, & why we need BBB & the #PROAct.”

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who like Lamb is running for a U.S. Senate Seat in 2022, has also called for support of the union. “A Union would go great with a cup of coffee,” Fetterman tweeted Tuesday.

Tinker told WESA he’s been overwhelmed by the support he and the union have received.

“It’s been really encouraging,” Tinker said. He said his termination has only strengthened the resolve of baristas seeking a union.

The baristas want better COVID-19 safety measures, wage increases and permission to implement electronic tips.

Tinker said the company hasn’t been consistent about keeping workers home who had potentially been exposed to COVID-19, but who had not yet received a test result for the virus.

The baristas are also seeking wage transparency, claiming the coffee chain required workers at one location to keep their raises secret from workers at other shops.

“We’re forming a union to create a better environment for our customers and for us as workers," said Riley Davis, a barista at the Mt. Lebanon location. "We feel we deserve electronic tips, guaranteed meal and rest breaks, paid sick time, and open communication with management."

Updated: December 29, 2021 at 3:35 PM EST
This story was updated to include new statements from local state representatives.
Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.