The unionization wave hits L.A. area bubble tea cafes

Boba Guys
A Boba Guys bubble tea cafe in San Ramon in 2020.
(Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Six Boba Guys locations in Los Angeles County will become the first unionized boba stores in California after a successful election, their union said Wednesday.

The bobaristas will join the California Restaurant & Retail Workers Union, which also represents workers at Genwa. The Los Angeles Korean barbecue restaurant chain unionized in 2021.

“When companies remain neutral and do not interfere with anti-union campaigns ... the workers will overwhelmingly support unionizing of their workplace,” said CRRWU President José Roberto Hernández.


Hernández said the union had been engaging with workers for the last six months. They filed for a union vote with the National Labor Relations Board in July and counted the results of the mail-in ballot election Wednesday afternoon. Boba Guys will be the first unionized boba stores in California, if not the country, Hernández said.

CRRWU also represents workers in ongoing unionization efforts at Korean grocery outlet Hannam Chain and at air purifier manufacturer Coway.

“We want to publicly express our support of the labor vote conducted by the National Labor Relations Board and [CRRWU],” Andrew Chau, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Boba Guys, said in a statement. “We have always believed in the right to organize and have cooperated with CRRWU and the NLRB throughout the entire process.”

Chau encouraged other businesses to “follow suit and open up the conversation on the much-needed dialogue surrounding labor in this country.”

Last fall, the boba chain — known for its drinks made with organic milk, loose-leaf teas and homemade syrups — faced backlash after firing a worker from its flagship store in San Francisco’s Mission District; the worker said Boba Guys told her it was because she had made “inappropriate, disparaging” comments to co-workers that were sexual in nature, but she believed she had been fired for posting about unions in a company Slack channel.

At that store, several workers publicly complained of reduced hours, a decrease in time given to open and close stores, and fewer people working per shift. They also spoke of working through heat waves without air conditioning, dealing with vermin and having their hours cut when they took their concerns to management.


The company eventually permanently closed that location.

Carmen Lau, a former manager at Boba Guys’ Culver City shop, said workers had been unhappy for months about their working conditions but weren’t sure what they could do about it.

“How do you fix it? How do you do more than just talk to the people in charge who have heard your complaints a number of times, acknowledge [them], but there’s no follow through?” Lau said.

She left the company in May for another professional opportunity, but also because of increasing demands at work and issues that remained unaddressed, she said.

“The increasing expectations for work, just having less time to prepare and prepare all the ingredients for opening — I found that it was getting really impossible to meet those expectations,” Lau said.

News of what happened at the Mission District store spread rapidly and drove a lot of the desire to push for increased benefits and protections, said Stephen Lightfoot, who works at the Boba Guys location in North Hollywood.

As an actor and sound designer, Lightfoot was well aware of the benefits joining a union could bring workers and was active in spreading the word to his colleagues, who were “very excited,” he said.


Los Angeles has become a center of labor activity as screenwriters, actors, hotel employees and city staffers went on strike over the summer, and there are unionization efforts underway at companies including Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s.