In principle, guilds are a good idea. We were pressured by the SCAA to start a barista guild in Canada in the early, mid 2000s, and thereafter we began our feasibility study on a Canadian chapter.
At that time, the number of members they had in the USA was surprisingly low, given the huge population. This suggests that either the baristas were not being reached or that the Barista Guild of America was not actually wanted by the baristas.
It has been purported that the average career of a barista spans 2 to 4 years. That means, for some baristas, their career is over before they even realize there is a guild that they can join. Others may not see the benefit of paying a membership fee, especially on a barista’s wage, which historically hovers near minimum wage.
This leads us to another, maybe even bigger question and one that is difficult to answer: Have barista guilds worked anywhere in the world? Anyone have the answer…?
So let's look at some intended benefits of the guild:
- Reduced rates for attending events. In some cases in the past you couldn’t enter without a membership. The real problem was, the membership actually limited your ability to attend.
- Connection with like-minded people.
- To be notified of new learning and educational opportunities.
- To amplify a collective voice with local and national government.
- The organization itself was supposed to look out for the greater good of baristas.
Those are some great points. Definitely something we could get behind and support.
In Canada, one of the primary reasons we didn't want to form a guild was because we were told that 75% of the membership fee would be swallowed up by the larger SCAA organization that was based, at that time, in the USA.
We couldn’t justify the effort only to see 75% of the raised funds go south of the border.
But the math never worked out no matter how we crunched the numbers.
At that time, in the early 2000s, the USA guild with all their wealth and strength generated by SCAA trade show revenues and membership sales could only muster approximately 1,000-2,000 members out of a population of 282 million. With Canada’s population being approximately 10% of the USA’s, our best guess was that in Canada we would have attracted just 100-200 members.
Even if we took the larger guesstimate of 200 members, and charged the working-poor baristas a $100 CDN membership fee (i.e. a whole day's work!), our maximum total revenue would have been only $20,000 CDN.
If all this money stayed in Canada it would have barely covered the cost of the phone bill and membership secretarial labour.
But remember, right off the top, 75% of those dues was going to be sent back to the SCAA American mothership so we would have been taking just $5,000 CDN as the TOTAL budget.
We had already been struggling with volunteer turnout and funding the barista competitions and barista jams that we were hosting. To then take what little money we could generate through a guild and have to send 75% of it to the larger organization just didn't make financial sense. Worst of all, when we did ask for assistance, we were declined that help from the SCAA.
We concluded that to have a Canadian guild, It could not be a money-making thing because baristas don't make more than minimum wage and you would have to offer, at the very least, the following:
- Your Membership would include Certification.
- Be member-driven, with all membership fees going to running events in Canada.
- New members would only be allowed to join through sponsorship from 3 good standing members followed by an interview process. In other words, membership would be qualified, and not just a money making thing.
- Guaranteed work when you join the guild. (There would be a job board, freely available to members, that 3rd wave companies could post to because the members are vetted, trained and ready to go employees)
- Higher wages because of the training baristas would get by joining the guild.
In the end, we opted out of forming a guild. Maybe that was the wrong choice for baristas in Canada, but at that time the obvious option was to pass on a Canadian barista guild. And we weren't the only ones to hold this viewpoint.
At the Anaheim SCAA convention, where the 2010 USBC Barista Championship was being held, the key, most influential 3rd wave/artisan coffee Canadian power brokers were summoned to SCAA headquarters in Anaheim to vote on this very question.
They were asked: Do you guys want a Canadian barista guild, and to become a chapter of the specialty coffee association of Americas?
The overwhelming sentiment was a resounding, “No”. A Canadian chapter of the SCAA and a Canadian guild were not in Canada's best interest.
So we weren't alone in our viewpoint.
This raises the question of why aren't the interests of the working barista, whose very presence behind the counter is the only reason the industry even works, being met by guilds?
Maybe the bigger question that needs to be asked is, with all the money that tradeshows and membership fees bring in, if the working barista isn't benefiting from all that money, who is?
That question will be explored in our next series of articles.