The coffee shop Little Dog by The Met in Brunswick, ME is the latest foodservice establishment in Maine to form a union.
Little Dog is part of a small chain of coffee shops in New Hampshire and Maine owned by Larry and Diane Flaherty. Little Dog has been a staple in the Brunswick community since 2005. Since then, the café has changed ownership twice – once in January 2019 and again in July 2022, when the Flaherty’s purchased the café and changed the name to Little Dog by The Met.
Union member Jessica Czarnecki, 26 tells Food Tank that the bargaining unit has been working on a long list of negotiations for several months, including a living wage, contracted workplace safety standards, a better training program, and more.
“I feel very connected to people trying to build community and make their work environment better,” Little Dog bargaining unit member Laurentz Locke, 25 tells Food Tank. “I feel that marginalized people need to organize their respective workplaces for the protection it offers the workers, and the sense of knowing that you have support from more than just yourself. Being a black man, it’s important to me to feel like I have support and people behind me.”
At Little Dog, all 12 union members are under 26 years, and the youngest member is 16. This reflects a larger trend of young workers who are at the forefront of union organizing around the country, including at Starbucks, Chipotle, and other chains.
Little Dog workers began talking seriously about forming a union in August. Throughout the formal organizing process, they worked with Workers United, a national organization that advocates for better pay, better pensions, better health insurance, and better respect and dignity in the workplace.
Union member Sophie Creamer, 22 tells Food Tank that the Workers United union representative was helpful in answering questions and giving advice. “I have learned so much, like basic labor laws, our rights as workers, and how to get ideas for negotiating,” she says.
In the Fall, the Little Dog bargaining unit approached their employer and announced their decision to unionize. Flaherty tells Food Tank that at the time, he had only owned Little Dog for two months. “Honestly, I had no idea what that all meant because I never dealt with it,” he says. After speaking with his lawyer, Flaherty decided “the fairest way [was] just to have everyone vote their conscience and go from there.”
According to Flaherty, “since the whole process started, the union has not communicated with me at all on what they’re looking for.”
But Czarnecki tells Food Tank that the bargaining unit’s lawyer and union representative spoke with Larry on behalf of workers throughout the organizing process. “We didn’t want to go to him directly because that would have been unintelligent,” they say. The bargaining unit was aware that information they shared with Flaherty could have been used against workers.
A couple weeks after the bargaining unit approached Flaherty, two managers at Little Dog were fired.
These firings are consistent with a statewide and nationwide trend of retaliation against workers and their organizing efforts. Across the country, over 100 union organizers have been fired by Starbucks during the unionization wave that began in late 2021, and 350 Unfair Labor Practice complaints have been filed with the NLRB, according to Maine AFL-CIO.
Workers at a Starbucks location in downtown Portland, ME faced similar retaliation after unionizing in mid-October. Just one month after workers won their election, Starbucks decided to close the store on December 23 for renovations, as reported by the Portland Press Herald.
“Starbucks’ decision to close one of its busiest stores in Portland less than a month after workers formed a union appears to be a brazen violation of the National Labor Relations Act,” State representative Chellie Pingree wrote in a statement on social media.
Despite corporate and employer retaliation, many community members have been supportive of workers’ organizing efforts. Residents of Brunswick and students at nearby Bowdoin College came to Little Dog to share words of encouragement throughout the organizing process. And the Maine chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) organized several “sip ins” and established a solidarity fund to provide financial support to the two employees who were fired – and to help cover costs of supplies for the union drive.
“When you love the job you have and are proud of the work you put in…it’s more than okay to want your workplace to be a safe place for not only yourself and your coworkers. It’s okay to ask for reasonable wages and fair treatment” union member Pam Monto, 23 tells Food Tank. “At the end of the day,” she continues, “you just want to know that when you go into work, you’re heard and your voice is valued. The working class doesn’t realize the actual power they have–it’s about time we do.”
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Photo courtesy of Jessica Czarnecki