May 15, 2024 - Food and Drink

The Wydown closes popular D.C. coffee shops amid union push

A woman Nardos Mecuria reads at The Wydown in DC. Photo by Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Wydown is now closed. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Popular coffee shop The Wydown abruptly closed its D.C. cafés on Tuesday, and is facing backlash from employees who allege the decision is an illegal union-busting move.

Why it matters: The Wydown marks another loss in D.C.'s dwindling indie coffee shop scene, and its closure comes just days before a union election.

Catch up quick: The Wydown opened a decade ago on 14th Street, followed by an H Street NE location — both popular for their sleek spaces, homemade pastries, and $6 lavender lattes.

  • In April, around 30 cooks, bakers, and baristas filed an intent to form a union, seeking higher pay — baristas said they made $11/hour — benefits, and more operational control. They also called for the company to address allegations of unfair treatment by management and unsanitary working conditions.
  • Employees are protesting outside both shops on Wednesday, demanding a meeting with ownership, a reopening of the cafés, and a return to work.

What they're saying: In a statement to Axios, Wydown co-owner Alex McCracken says the decision to close the cafés pre-dated the union drive.

  • "Last year we realized we were ready for a change, and Tuesday, May 14th was our last day of operations," he says.

The other side: Baristas at the 14th Street location tell Axios that workers were notified of the closure via their scheduling app around 8pm Tuesday, less than 10 hours before employees were scheduled to arrive for the early morning shift.

  • "To shutter their business in the night is shameful," barista Chris Chandler tells Axios. "We'd love a scenario where we can motivate them to reopen, but I'm not sure it's a practical goal. We're [protesting] to let people know that this is not an acceptable way to treat people."

What's next: A GoFundMe was established to cover workers' expenses, with one barista telling Axios most employees "are living paycheck to paycheck."

  • Union organizers tell Axios they're filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, and seeking severance pay.

Yes, but: Some are skeptical of results. Rebecca Hess, organizing director at the Mid-Atlantic chapter of Workers United, advised The Wydown workers. Hess tells Axios that if the NLRB finds evidence of union avoidance, businesses typically "get a slap on the wrist."

  • "Public shaming and humiliation are more effective than any board charge."

The big picture: Coffee shops are driving a unionization movement across the country, from mega-chain Starbucks to indie roasters.

  • Hess and Workers United have led the Starbucks union campaign, which is making strides with negotiations underway. Hess says Workers United is also in final contract negotiations with indie shop Rare Bird Coffee Roasters in Falls Church.
  • Other coffee shops have shuttered around the country amid union drives.

What they're saying: Hess, a union organizer for over 30 years, says that unique demographics at coffee shops have made them more prone to unionization than other hospitality businesses.

  • "We have educated baristas, people getting master's degrees. And we have these cafés full of remote workers. Someone that will pay $10 for a cup of coffee is not your average Joe drinker. It's a community of progressives."
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