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French Truck coffee shop on Chartres Street votes to unionize

The sign outside French Truck Coffee on Chartres Street.
Michael Isaac Stein
The French Truck coffee shop on Chartres Street where workers voted to unionize on Sept. 20, 2023.

This story was originally published by Verite.

The workers of the French Truck coffee shop on Chartres Street have formed a union, voting 8-0 in a federal union election held last Wednesday.

“We have done something pretty awesome here,” Mat Ricciardo, one of the French Truck baristas and organizers, told Verite.

The vote makes the French Truck location the third New Orleans coffee shop to unionize in about the last 15 months, following two Starbucks locations last year and earlier this year. But it remains one of a relatively small number of unionized businesses in the city.

The French Truck employees opted to affiliate with the local chapter of the Teamsters union. Several told Verite that they hoped the company’s other 10 locations — in the New Orleans area, Baton Rouge and Memphis — would soon opt to unionize as well.

“I’m hoping we eventually get all of them,” French Truck barista Autumn West said.

French Truck company representatives did not respond to several requests for comment.

After taking a moment to celebrate, the workers say they’re moving on towards negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. According to three workers who spoke to Verite, the top issue they want to address is pay.

They said that with $10 an hour plus tips, the job pays fairly well during peak months. But the tips slow to a trickle in the summer, when tourism wanes and the French Quarter empties out.

“The summer slowdown was awful,” Ricciardo said, adding that several employees have had trouble finding stable, long-term housing. “I mean, they just cannot afford to live anywhere in this city.”

One of those coworkers is West, who on the day of her interview had just finished moving herself and her daughter into the Covenant House homeless shelter.

“I had to leave my apartment, it was just impossible,” West said.

West said when she first started in March, her twice-monthly take-home pay was between $1,200 and $1,400.

“And then in late June, when the summer really hit us, it went down to like, $500 or $600,” West said. “My rent at the time was $1,080. I can’t exactly pay that and my electricity and my food and for my daughter’s stuff. I didn’t even have like half of the rent.”

West said she and other French Truck employees aren’t the only ones struggling in the French Quarter, where many jobs in food service and hospitality are reliant on tips and put workers in a hole whenever tourism dips.

“We can’t be the only people with this problem,” she said.

Another French Truck worker, Sarah Green, said that she was frustrated over recent decisions by the store to raise prices to cover inflated costs of ingredients, but did not also raise employee pay.

“And it’s like, yeah, everything’s more expensive for us too, but we didn’t see any increase in compensation for that,” Green said.

Ricciardo said that the company did not willingly embrace the union efforts. French Truck is currently facing two open unfair labor practice charges at the federal National Board of Labor Relations alleging that it retaliated against and made coercive statements toward workers.

“I do think it’s important that we acknowledge that this didn’t happen in a vacuum,” he said. “This was built off the backs of workers that have sacrificed their jobs and were retaliated against.”

Those complaints involve other stores, Ricciardo said, adding that workers at the French Quarter location didn’t experience any similar retaliation during their union effort. But he said that the company’s executives did make their opposition to the union clear.

The French Truck workers argued the company should be embracing the union, and that a union makes the company stronger as a whole. For example, one central frustration voiced by workers was the lack of help they get from corporate.

“One small example would be like when things would break,” West said. “Like, we have a sink in the back of house, spraying everywhere for three weeks. And we kept letting people know, ‘Hey, this is broken, it’s putting balls in the wall, it’s causing water damage.”

Everyone benefits from making sure equipment is working properly, West argued.

“My coworkers are wonderful people,” West said. “We all get along, and we all help each other. I think the issue is just corporate. Because anytime we asked them for help, they won’t help. Anytime we tried to get questions answered, they’re nowhere to be found.”

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