by Julius Eason
A workers’ strike at the Spirited Goat Coffee House in Yellow Springs, Ohio stirred up controversy in mid-June, following a list of demands that were spread throughout the village. Katheryn Amend, now a former employee of the Spirited Goat, drew up the document with the support of fellow coworkers, following a last-straw incident wherein the cafe’s owner, Michael Herington, had a heated dispute with two of his employees and fired them on the spot.
The list of demands were drawn up the following day, compiled of grievances Amend claims had been brought to Herington’s attention months prior, to no avail. Demands such as a definitive schedule, the rectification of several long-standing maintenance issues, and a more professional work environment were listed. Also among those listed were more pressing concerns, such a higher wage of $15 an hour, worker’s compensation and social security, and a legal payroll system.
Two and a half years ago, Amend spent three months trying to get a job at the coffee shop she frequented while attending Antioch College. A few informal interviews later, and Katheryn was a member of the workforce, a workforce that was paid in cash with no benefits to speak of. “Because of the legal peril thing, [Herington] needed to vet people to see whether or not he could trust them,” she said. “It was nice money, I can’t lie. But we always brought up the issue. ‘Let’s legitimize this, let’s try.’ What would happen if a 16-year-old working there was injured? For us, it was more about responsibility.”
Herington’s behavior increasingly made for a work environment Amend says made her uncomfortable. The cafe owner often couldn’t be bothered with minor issues such as restocking tissue paper in the restroom, and grew agitated when employees questioned him about their hours. Herington would often fill in and relieve his employees, but that would often result in a worker’s hours being cut short upon his arrival, or a worker having to stay beyond the agreed-upon time if Herington was running late.
Undesirables amongst the clientele were also an issue for the staff. Customers would at times be harassing, and Amend stated she and other workers witnessed open containers and underage drinking within the establishment. Since the Spirited Goat fostered such an eclectic mix of people, and since Herington was both welcoming of the diverse culture and hesitant to involve the authorities, there was little the staff members could do.
According to the Yellow Springs News, Herington claimed his employees never approached him with their concerns before they decided to strike. While admitting that the minimum wage issue needs to be addressed, as a small business owner, the profit margins don’t allow him to nearly double his employees’ pay. Ohio’s minimum wage is $7.95 an hour, with Spirited Goat employees taking home $8 an hour plus tips. In regards to the payroll system and workers compensation, Herington told the publication he thought he had the option of hiring independent contractors. Employees were asked to fill out a 1099 tax form.
The flyers communicating intent to strike were posted about town, and a thread in the open Facebook group Yellow Springs Open Discussion soon grew 800 comments strong in debate over the issue, with most discussing the striker’s demand for $15 an hour, which Amend said was simply a bargaining point.
“Everyone harped on the $15, but it’s part of negotiation. It wasn’t a hard line. But everything else on that list was non negotiable,” she said.
Since the flyers’ release, the workers had planned to meet with Herington through mediator John Gudgel of the Yellow Springs Village Mediation Program. Talks fell through when Herington declined the offer.
Around the same time, the Rust Belt School, a center for Marxist education based in Yellow Springs, published a pamphlet asking for a minimum wage increase of $15 an hour, stating that “the minimum wage is an insult to the working class,” and urging readers to demand a raise in minimum wage from the Yellow Springs Village Council.
Matt Carson, co-founder of the Rust Belt School, said that while they were not operating in conjunction with the strike workers, he supported “all workers’ rights to organize,” and the literature was simply meant to educate readers on a larger struggle.
“It’s not teenagers working these incredibly low wage jobs, these are people with families trying to live on minimum wage, or slightly above minimum wage. Eight dollars an hour is above minimum wage, but that doesn’t add up to very much on a paycheck when you’re working twenty hours a week. It’s insulting.”
The staff members involved in the strike are no longer employed at the Spirited Goat Coffee House. Amend says herself and those involved had second jobs already; she has since picked up more hours at a retail job in Beavercreek, and continues to finish school. The former employees are currently working with the National Labor Relations Board to acquire unpaid wages during the strike.