Workers at DC’s Wydown cafes got organized. Then they lost everything.

At 7:58 p.m. on May 14, all the workers at The Wydown were laid off.

The popular two-unit coffee chain in Washington, D.C., shut down overnight on the same day, just shy of four weeks before a National Labor Relations Board agent was scheduled to count ballots in union elections at both cafes. The workers organized with Workers United, the union responsible for the Starbucks union drive.  

The closures are likely the end of the workers’ union drive — workers’ ability to force reopenings is generally limited to partial closures, rather than the total end of a business — and marks another defeat for organized cafe labor in a city that has largely resisted the wave of unionization unleashed by Starbucks Workers United’s victories.

Alex McCracken, Wydown’s co-owner, wrote in an email to Restaurant Dive that he and his two co-owners decided last year that they “were ready for a change.” A copy of management’s message to workers announcing the closure also stated the closure was the result of a long, unspecified process.

“Tuesday May 14th was our last day of operations,” McCracken wrote. 

Workers received almost no advanced warning of the cessation of operations, said Tom Friedl, a pro-union barista at the former Wydown location on 14th Street. Friedl said the Friday before the closure, a worker discovered a printed draft of the email, which was later sent out on May 14, in the office. The union’s lawyers and Wydown workers interpreted the draft as an intimidation tactic.

“It doesn’t make any sense for them to just shut down this business. It was seemingly profitable,” Friedl said in an interview after the closure. The 14th street location was always busy and had more than $1 million in sales last year, Friedl said. The second cafe — located on H Street in Northeast D.C. — was similarly popular. Friedl also said the company was trying to hire new staff up to the week before closing.

McCracken didn’t respond to requests for comment on the stores’ financial performance.

Despite the closures, Workers United wants to continue with the NLRB election, scheduled for early June, which was to be conducted via mail-in ballots.

“The union is pushing to have a vote anyway,” Friedl said. “If we win the election, [Workers United] would be able to bargain more effectively for severance pay.”

Friedl said Wydown workers refused an offer from the chain’s owners to pay workers the rest of their final pay period — the stores shut down in the middle of a pay period — because they viewed the move as an excuse to avoid offering a proper severance package. 

Self-immolation of a business or part of a business is far from rare in union drives. In Massachusetts, a four-unit cafe chain called Darwin’s closed in 2022 in the middle of a contract campaign by workers organized with Unite Here. Walmart famously eliminated meat cutting jobs in its delis in 2000 by switching from fresh-cut to pre-packaged meats. In 2017, DNAInfo and Gothamist, two online media platforms, were shuttered by their owner shortly after a union election.

Wydown workers organized against long odds

Full-service restaurants in D.C. have seen some labor organizing wins — workers organizing with Unite Here Local 25 won voluntary recognition at The Bazaar by Jose Andres earlier this year — but local cafes have struggled to gain union representation. 

Organizing workers at La Colombe units across the country have won blowout elections at every location where they’ve organized save one: a Washington, D.C. store where the union withdrew its petition for an election. Starbucks Workers United, meanwhile, has made limited inroads in the capital, winning representation at just two of the city’s cafes. In nearby Richmond, Virginia, a much smaller city, SBWU represents four stores in city limits and several more in nearby suburbs. 

At Wydown, workers faced a sharp language division between kitchen workers and front-of-house workers at the 14th street location, the sort of barrier that often stymies union drives before they ever go public.

“The back of house is almost exclusively Spanish-speaking,” Friedl said in a separate interview prior to the closures. “A few people in front of the house know a little bit of Spanish.”

The organizing drive started initially among the baristas at the H Street location, Josiah Batterson, a lead barista at that location, said during an interview before the closures. Holly Costanzo, a barista at H Street, said the organizing drive at that store had to rely on one worker, the chef de cuisine, to effectively serve as translator between the Spanish-speaking kitchen workers and the English-speaking baristas and bakers.

High turnover also made it difficult to build durable majority support at the H Street location. This unit is also referred to as the Apollo location by workers, after the apartment building the cafe was housed in. 

“When I joined Apollo, I was told they had a two-year retention rate and since then it’s gone very, very down,” Batterson said. 

Friedl said only two of the baristas at the 14th Street Wydown had been there longer than a year, about 18 months for each, while cooks had a somewhat longer tenure.

When workers went public with their union drive in April, they initially filed for an election as a single bargaining unit, but management forced them to refile as two separate stores, delaying the election. While single-store bargaining units can sometimes work to the advantage of a union by giving them a foothold in shops they can win quickly, they can also make it easier to isolate and defeat organized workers. Employers can, for example, concentrate managerial surveillance on stores they perceive to have the weakest union support to snuff out organizing, rather than disperse those resources across a whole system.

“These are intended to be the same store,” Friedl said, adding that workers frequently moved between the stores to make up labor shortfalls.

“We have the same website. Every single piece of merchandise that we sell is identical. We have the exact same drinks and exact same menu.” 

What made them fight

When Costanzo started working at Wydown, they had an intent to unionize it. An organizing attempt at their previous employer had fallen through. 

“I didn’t have any big plans, but I was like, ‘I still have all this energy’ and I wanted better for baristas,” Costanzo said. 

Through conversations with other workers, Costanzo found the shop was ripe for organization, as many workers had conflict with the manager at the Apollo location. 

The manager, who was eventually fired for unrelated issues, inadvertently pushed many workers to support unionizing after an incident in which the manager persuaded the company’s director of operations to fire a worker for knocking too loudly on an office door, Costanzo said. Workers were required to knock on the door to enter the office, which housed the walk-in freezer where workers stored supplies like almond milk and oat milk. Wydown’s owners did not respond to a request for comment on working conditions or managerial practices.

“We had already started the process of organizing,” Costanzo said, referring to the time of the worker’s firing. “But this was the final push for people. Because a lot of people felt like it could have been anyone that was fired in that situation.”

Other issues ran deeper. Costanzo and Batterson said hours at the Apollo were inconsistent. In one instance after the union went public, a shift lead suffered a non-work-related injury that prevented them from working, and management responded by cutting hours at the store rather than promoting a new shift lead. Scheduling and pay were a consistent issue.

“No one’s working more than 30 hours a week,” Friedl said.

Batterson said he was told during Wydown’s interview process that he would make $20 an hour as a lead barista, a role that is one step above shift leads. When he started, however, he only earned $16 an hour. Baristas made $11 an hour, Batterson said. 

For context, the minimum wage for tipped workers in the district is $8 an hour — D.C. is in the process of eliminating the tip credit — while the nontipped minimum wage is $17, according to the D.C. Office of Employment Services. According to Massachusetts Institute of Technologys living wage calculator, the living wage for a single adult in D.C. is $23.90 per hour. Washington is one of the most expensive cities in the country, with the 7th highest cost of living, according to CNBC.

Batterson joined the company because management told him during the hiring process that they were planning to open a third shop, which would offer promotion potential for skilled workers. 

Staffing was another chronic problem at the Apollo. In the front of house, Costanzo said, it was common for there to be just one shift lead and one other worker on the clock, with small periods of overlap with a second worker at the midpoint of the shift.

“Our stores have been getting busier and busier,” Costanzo said. “It definitely gets overwhelming to handle.” 

Baristas had to help serve and prepare the cafe’s full menu, in addition to making drinks, handling the register and dealing with online and third-party orders. There were simply not enough workers on shift to support demand, Costanzo said.

For back-of-house workers at the Apollo, conditions were physically uncomfortable; the kitchen lacked air conditioning. Staffing in the kitchen also made it difficult for workers there to take breaks often only two workers were employed in the kitchen at a time — meaning cooks often worked through their breaks while ovens ran full blast without any ventilation.

The 14th Street location, by contrast, tended to have better staffing, but had its own specific issue: flooding.

“We have this regular issue where water suddenly starts coming out of the crack between the floor and the wall under the sink,” Friedl said. “It’s been happening since last summer.”

Friedl said the water pouring into the store was likely a result of a broader plumbing issue in the building, rather than with Wydown’s sink. 

“In that one case, it smelled like sewage. I’ve been there when it smelled like rotten fish. This is wastewater coming from somewhere. And that’s absolutely not a safe environment to be working in, particularly for foodservice,” Friedl said. “They just don’t close the shop. They refuse to.”

Friedl said workers eventually felt the problems were too much to tolerate: The bathrooms at 14th lacked any ventilation and the steam nozzles on the espresso machines leaked boiling hot water. Friedl said he was burned multiple times using those machines, and Costanzo said much of the equipment wasn’t functioning properly. 

“Between those two stores, we have four espresso machines,” Costanzo said. “We have one that completely works from which you are able to pull espresso shots and steamed milk. The others have parts that work but are not fully operational.”

Now, the question of functional espresso machines is moot; The Wydown no longer exists. The workers picketed several times after the closures and received an outpouring of community support as they continue to push for severance. As of Wednesday, they still have not received compensation packages from management.

“You can’t really exert that much leverage on a business that no longer exists,” Friedl said. “We did what we could.”