At 12:00 am on Sunday, August 18th, the night shift at the Harvard Square Insomnia Cookies voted unanimously to initiate a strike for higher wages, healthcare, and freedom to build a union. On Tuesday, August 20th, all four strikers joined the Industrial Workers of the World, and launched a public campaign to achieve their goals. Insomnia Cookies, with 30 locations in the US, caters to college students and runs late night deliveries of warm cookies and milk to dorm rooms. Delivering cookies until 2:45 am, Insomnia workers who double-duty as bakers and cashiers receive only $9 an hour.
“Drivers,” who are expected to deliver cookies by bicycle within a half hour, receive only $5 an hour plus tips. Neither receives healthcare and the turnover is so high, the typical employee lasts only a month. As Niko Stapczynski, a striking driver at Insomnia, told the Industrial Worker, “I was being paid below minimum wage. We had no breaks because we were understaffed. Sometimes we’d work without breaks until 3:15 am. We were supposed to keep delivery time as fast as possible, which encouraged unsafe riding.”
Peak hours are late at night when college students return from parties. As the lines of customers thickened on the evening of Saturday, August 17th, Chris Helali noticed his coworkers were stressed. “I gauged the overall feeling that night and people were pretty down. I basically said guys lets go on strike. It took about an hour to get everyone to agree and to figure out what we were going to do.” The entire night shift—four workers, Chris Helali, Jonathan Peña, Niko Stapczynski, and Luke Robinson—used the store computer to type up a strike agreement, and made signs for the store’s windows. Then, Helali continues, “we told the customers we were going on strike. Some of the customers asked ‘can we at least get a cookie before you close down the store?’ So we said sure, why not. We served everyone in the store. Then we went outside to put up the signs and lock the door.”
At 3 am the regional manager, who runs the only Insomnia Cookies in Massachusetts, arrived to file the paperwork to fire all four strikers. He then called Luke Robinson to threaten him with a lawsuit for “violating contractual obligations,” says Helali. The store did not open again until 1 pm on Sunday, August 18, two hours later than usual.
Picketing began that morning at 10 am, and all of the strikers were on the line by 11 am. The police, according to Helali, “came about eight or nine times and told us to stay away, do not bother the store…They said we’d be arrested if we went inside. They told us to stay on the center median, about thirty feet from the store, or we would be arrested.” While workers have a legal right to picket on the sidewalk outside their store, so long as they remain moving in a circle or otherwise, the police, called in by the boss, intimidated the workers.
That afternoon, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) arrived to lend support. Helali, who reached out to the IWW, said, “I knew that the IWW in Boston was pretty militant and was ready to go straight to action, as opposed to some of the business unions who probably would not even come or try to organize us. I knew the IWW would do everything in their power to help us out. So I decided to reach out on the Facebook page and post about our strike.” One organizer arrived around noon, and by 3:30 pm five others had arrived. On Tuesday, all four strikers joined the IWW and held a meeting with union organizers.
On Thursday, the strikers and their union held a march from the Harvard Square T Station to the store, with fifty IWW members and allies, including Harvard dining hall workers, members of Harvard Student Labor Action Movement, Common Struggle/Lucha Común, Boston Solidarity Network, and others, participating.
Insomnia workers marched to their shop again on Monday evening, following a union rally against racially-motivated firings at Harvard University, organized by Harvard No Layoffs Campaign, led by “dual card” members of the IWW and the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUTCW). Jonathan Peña addressed the crowd. Around 50 people, including students from the Harvard Student Labor Action Movement, joined the march from Harvard to the Insomnia location, surprising the manager and leafleting the public.
While the workers at Insomnia had not joined a union prior to striking, some workers had been discussing workplace conditions, unions, and strikes for weeks. According to Helali, he and other workers “would speak about the issues that pertain to our job and the conditions there. I heard a lot of the other workers’ gripes, what they wanted to be changed, how they felt they were treated. I tried to gauge the general overall feeling, and concerns of the workers. It prompted me to eventually put the idea out for a strike, as a joke at first maybe about two weeks before the strike. I’d sort of casually say, hey we should go out on strike. Why not?”
Along with low pay, no benefits, and unrealistic expectations on the part of the company, workers complained about a lack of breaks. According to Helali, “Customers would flood in and sometimes we’d have to have all of us up front helping. It was constant on our feet. Rarely did we get an opportunity to sit down and relax.” It was the pressure of the crowd of hungry customers that finally drove these workers to strike. However, in not contacting the union prior to striking, and not organizing the day shift to join the strike or union, the strikers began at a disadvantage. With dedication to their cause and plenty of support from the IWW and other allies, strikers hope to overcome the obstacles in front of them and turn Insomnia Cookies into a job worth having, and to spread the union to Insomnia Cookies locations across the country.
The Insomnia strike began just a week and a half before a national wave of fast food workers’ strikes organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). On Thursday, August 29th, fast food workers across the country participated in a one day strike for a $15 minimum wage, highlighted in Boston by a 4 pm rally at the Boston Common. As Jonathan Peña told the Industrial Worker, “we want to show solidarity with the struggles of other fast food workers, because their fight is our fight.” Insomnia workers were present at the Fight for Fifteen pickets in Boston beginning that morning at 6 am, and ending with an evening picket at Insomnia in Harvard Square at 6 pm.
While half of the striking Insomnia workers have moved from Boston this September, the other two workers are continuing to plan public demonstrations and discuss unionization with their coworkers, Harvard students, and other service workers, while they pursue legal charges against their employer for withholding breaks and back pay and failing to meet minimum wage.
The company opened a new location on September 2nd near Boston University at 708 Commonwealth Avenue.