In front of the towering gray Soldiers Monument at the corner of Centre Street and South Street in Jamaica Plain, more than a hundred people gathered on Sunday, April 24 to support the unionization effort at City Feed and Supply, headed by a group of employees called City Feed Unite.
Employees at City Feed, a high-end grocery store and café on Centre Street, filed a petition to form a union on March 30 of this year. The group, according to their petition to gather community support, is calling for “the right to collectively bargain for equitable and living wages, healthcare and benefits, and a voice at work over issues of safety, harassment, COVID sick leave, and other working conditions that affect [their] physical, emotional, and financial well-being.”
City Feed owners and co-founders David Warner and Kristine Cortese released a letter on April 9 refusing to voluntarily recognize the union. The next step for City Feed Unite was to file a petition for an election through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which they did on April 15. On the election day, City Feed and Supply employees will have the opportunity to vote for a union. Although the outcome remains uncertain, City Feed Unite has already collected union authorization cards from the majority of employees across City Feed’s two JP locations at Centre Street and Boylston Street.
City Feed Unite’s organizing comes as waves of café and coffee shop workers have begun to unionize, from Pavement’s success last year to several Boston-area Starbucks’ victories this year to the efforts of Darwin’s in Cambridge, and more.
The rally began with speeches from City Feed employees and other union organizers. Leading organizer Emery Spooner spoke first, highlighting the hypocrisy of a business that sells fair-trade products and claims to be progressive refusing to voluntarily recognize its employees’ union.
Several organizers mentioned the unique challenge of unionizing at a small business, as opposed to standing up to billion-dollar corporations like Starbucks and Amazon. “We know our bosses,” said Spooner. “We know David, we know Kristine, and we know they're loved by the community. We know their stores are popular in JP. And I love working at a small business, where I know the customers, when I get to make lunch for my next-door neighbors. It’s great. But it takes a lot of bravery to stand up to the people that you know and tell them ‘enough is enough.’”
Care for their coworkers is central to the organizing City Feed Unite members are doing. “Every single day, I feel lucky to go to work with my coworkers. Again, they're literally my heroes these days,” said Spooner.
Employee Jacob Evans emphasized that forming a union is a way to come together to make a workplace better for everyone, even the customers. “You can have your back and your co-worker’s back in a workplace,” he said, “but a union really gives it, like, structure.”
After several City Feed employees spoke, the crowd heard from a more seasoned labor organizer: Steve Gillis, a Boston resident who has worked as a school bus driver for 37 years and is a member of the executive board of the United Steelworkers Local 8751. “We've been living for decades, fighting defensive battles,” he said. “And it's so good to be alive.”
Gillis passionately recounted the danger organizers faced since 1980, when he began working as a bus driver, and then applauded the wave of labor organizing he has seen in his community. “The young people these days, we call them ‘Generation U,’ alright, Generation Union! They’re living our dream! They’re living what we thought, you know, could be accomplished. And they’re lighting up the world for everybody to see.”
The rally concluded with a musical performance from JP resident Evan Greer. With her guitar in hand, Greer commented on the anti-union argument that people don’t want City Feed to change because they “love it.”
“We love the workers of City Feed,” she said. “Support the union, so that the people who make City Feed happen have the dignity and respect and pay that they deserve.”
They then led the crowd in singing about unity and labor rights victories. At one point, she instructed attendees with cameras to gather in the back, and told the rest of the crowd to turn towards the cameras, to capture everyone’s signs and singing and to display the sheer number of people standing in solidarity with City Feed employees.
City Feed Unite has been vocal on social media about not asking the community to boycott City Feed and Supply. The employees rely on tips for income, so grocery shopping, eating a bagel sandwich, or grabbing a cup of coffee (and leaving a tip) helps the organizers keep up their efforts. Supporters can also sign City Feed Unite’s petition and encourage members of their community to do so as well.
Kali Fillhart, a bar supervisor at City Feed, has been in the service industry for eight years, starting when she was 16 years old. Because she cannot afford to take medical leave, she will be working 60-hour weeks before she takes time off. “These jobs are real jobs,” she said. “And we deserve everything else that all other workers should have.”
As workers across Boston and around the US look to use collective action to advocate for fair and equitable work environments, the workers at City Feed are proof that efforts to support workers’ rights are gaining momentum both in popularity and success.