The following is part of a press release from the Small Union, a newly announced union effort associated with the New England Joint Board of UNITE HERE.
Portland, Maine — On Tuesday, January 30th, the workers of Smalls (a cafe on Portland’s West End) presented a letter to owner Samantha Knopf, informing her of their intent to form a union. The workers called on Knopf and her business partners to voluntarily recognize their union and begin fair negotiations for a contract as soon as possible.
“Our demands are simple: fair compensation and good treatment for the hard work we do every day,” said Smalls cook Jamie C, 22, “with such overwhelming support from the staff and community, we expect our employer will recognize our efforts and begin bargaining with us in good faith.”
Smalls has been a popular West End spot since its opening in 2022. Open all day, community members enjoy the environment as a social, leisure, and work space; a genuine third space. It has a history of supporting efforts to better our community, recently launching a raffle to benefit Palestine, all proceeds going to the PCRF (there’s still time to enter if you’re reading this day of), supporting protestors at the Harborview Encampment through supplying protestors and unhoused neighbors with free food during the eviction process, and helping to deliver free meals during the holidays.
Creating a safe space for the queer community has also been a highlight to workers, owners, and patrons of Smalls, with all workers being queer or vehement allies of the community. Knopf herself is queer and has done the very important work of making sure Smalls is a space where the people can gather and find community with events like queer speed dating.
However, workers at Smalls are genuinely suffering. They are unable to afford the rising costs of housing, healthcare, and basic necessities (utilities, car payments, etc) as the cost of living in Portland rises, and pay stays the same. This begs the question, how queer-friendly is a business if its queer staff can’t afford to live? The workers rightly point out this gap in their employer’s mission statement. Service industry workers, queer and straight alike, deserve to have the financial ability to access healthcare, rest, and recreation.
“We know that Portland’s economy is built on our hard work and the work of thousands of others like us. We’ve built this city, we should be paid enough to afford to live where we work,” said Robyn E, 28, “I love my job, bartending brings me so much joy, but I need to be paid and treated in such a way that makes it sustainable for me and my community.”
Inspired by the success of local restaurant workers who organized unions at CÔNG TỬ BỘT, Coffee By Design, and the former Starbucks Workers United on Congress Street, the workers at Smalls chose to form a union instead of attempting to address all of their needs individually.
“I have always loved working in the service industry, but I have never been able to do what I love and afford a quality standard of living”, said Smalls cook Peach C, 26, “Given the massive economic impact that service workers have in Portland, it only makes sense that workers should be able to live in the town where they work and not struggle every day with finances.”
In light of the workers organizing, Katie Schools, a Maine Restaurant Workers organizer said, “Food service has one of the lowest unionization rates in the country, at only 1.4% in 2023. Because of this, things like low pay and unsafe working conditions are the norm in the industry. Portland’s famous food scene is built on the hard work of workers, and their love for their community and customers. These workers deserve a voice in their workplace and a say over their working conditions. Unionizing is a step towards making the food service industry sustainable for everybody, not just businesses.”
The workers are joining the New England Joint Board UNITE HERE! The worker’s effort is supported by the Maine AFL-CIO’s Southern Maine Labor Council, Restaurant Workers Coalition, and Maine Democratic Socialists of America.
One Small Union NEJB has invited all supporters, friends, comrades, community members, and the press to attend a “Sip-In” event in support of their effort from 8:00 am – 8:00 pm on Thursday, February 1st, at Smalls, 28 Brackett St, Portland.
We are made up of 8 Baristas, Bartenders, and Cooks. We all have established careers in the service industry and hope to be able to afford a living doing what we love.
The New England Joint Board UNITE HERE represents workers in the textile, garment, manufacturing, warehousing, laundry, human service, and hospitality industries in New England and New York, including workers at CÔNG TỬ BỘT, Portland’s first independent unionized restaurant.
After delivering a letter asking for voluntary recognition of their unanimously-supported union, the workers at Smalls are inviting all to join them in a sip-in to show support for their union recognition campaign. Inspired by similar events organized by Starbucks Workers United to demonstrate community support for the workers, all are invited to come by the cafe, order some food or drink, and offer words of support and encouragement! Attendees are asked to wear their own union attire, if applicable, and bring small signs or cards showing their support.
What: One Small Union Sip-in
When: Thursday, February 1st
Where: Smalls, 28 Brackett St, Portland, ME