A Budding Midwestern Labor Struggle: Colectivo Coffee Employees In The Middle Of Historic Vote To Unionize "Colectivo Coffee" by Thomas Hawk is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

A Budding Midwestern Labor Struggle: Colectivo Coffee Employees In The Middle Of Historic Vote To Unionize

All across the Midwest, employees at Colectivo Coffee are in the middle of a historic union vote. If successful, they’ll be the largest unionized coffee house in the country, paving the way for other regional and national chains to organize. It’s the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the Midwestern labor struggle, and the story itself is a practical guide to how a group of dedicated organizers can launch a broad unionizing effort. 

However, the process hasn’t been without conflict. Management at Colectivo has been militant about their union-busting efforts, hiring outside consultants and using dirty tactics to turn employees against each other. Organizers have persevered, even continuing to volunteer their time and energy after being permanently laid-off or fired. 

The year long process comes to a head this month as employees vote by mail: union yes or union no. The final votes will be cast on March 30th, with the outcome known in early April. Whatever the final decision, organizers at Colectivo hope that their efforts will inspire others to organize, and to stand strong in the face of divisive anti-union tactics. 

The Brewing Battle Over Unionization 

Colectivo Coffee is a midwestern luxury coffee chain, operating over a dozen locations throughout Milwaukee, Madison, and Chicago. From locally sourced produce, to artisan roasted coffee, to fresh-baked pastries, Colectivo walks the walk of an ethical and sustainable business. Their marketing and branding emphasizes a “neighborhood” approach, where Colectivo claims to value fair trade, community bonds, and investing in their neighbors. 

However, those public facing sentiments don’t seem to apply to Colectivo’s employees. Pay differs widely between different Colectivo locations, with employees in Madison and Milwaukee making around $3 less per hour than employees in Chicago. 

And as the pandemic rolls on, Colectivo seems desperate to cut corners when it comes to public health precautions. They don’t require employees exposed to Covid-19 to quarantine, and union organizers had to fight to implement temperature checks and paid time off if an employee contracted Covid.  

Zoe Muellner had been a barista trainer for Colectivo in Chicago for about two years when she decided to join the unionizing effort. She says of her time with the company, “Managers were encouraged to overwork themselves so they could cut labor budgets. They worked while sick, they would not take lunch breaks, they were treated like numbers and then not listened to when they had input from their cafe that they knew personally.”

Other employee complaints include that schedules were often changed with no warning, that workplace disputes and harassment were mismanaged, and that company policy would be constantly shifting, making it difficult for workers to do their jobs effectively. 

For these reasons and more, Colectivo employees began their union effort about a year ago, and went public in August of 2020. They are organizing with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or the IBEW, as a catch-all option that allows baristas, bakers, warehouse coffee roasters, and delivery drivers to come together under the same union. The IBEW supports Colectivo organizers with resources and information, and has helped guide them through the process. 

Zoe Muellner, and many other managers involved in the organizing process were let go over this past fall and winter. Most of them say that it seems clearly retaliatory for their role in unionization. However, most have stayed onboard as organizers, invested in the success of the movement that they helped create. Folks like Zoe are excited to see the outcome of their planning and organizing, and hope that it will create a ripple effect in the world of cafes, and in the Midwest more generally. 

The Multi-Million Dollar “Union Avoidance” Industry 

It wasn’t long after the organizers went public with their unionization efforts when Colectivo hired the Labor Relations Institute, a “union avoidance” firm who consults them on the best ways to get between organizers and other employees. It’s a multi-million dollar industry, and, according to the AFL-CIO, the Labor Relations Institute is one of the best players in the game. 

They come prepared with presentations, flyers, and a set of standard talking points, designed to mislead employees new to the concept of unions on what the process could mean for them. They’ve taunted Colectivo employees with the prospect of paying steep dues, losing their rights as workers, getting locked out, or even forcing Colectivo to declare bankruptcy. The Labor Relations Institute also coaches managers on how to send out personalized emails to everyone but the organizers, fomenting fear and distrust in the workplace. 

Colectivo pays the Labor Relations Institute $1500 a day, and pays consultants up to $3000 to conduct captive audience training. This is all despite the company publicly crying broke, and complaining that it will be the union that bankrupts them. 

Ryan Coffel, a cafe co-worker in Chicago and organizer, says “These high-priced consultants fly in from all over the country, and get their expenses and travel covered, all to tell us that we shouldn’t ask for fair wages.”

Although the Labor Relations Institute’s talking points are largely fantastical, they’re anxiety-inducing for hourly wage workers who already make too little money and are stressed about making ends meet. It’s why union-busting is so sinister and effective: in an America with deeply eroded rights for workers and sub-standard quality of life, workers are highly susceptible to the lies and fears of union-busters and management.

Voting For A Better Workplace 

The lead up to the union vote this month has been tumultuous, but sadly, it’s pretty typical of the pushback many organizing efforts face. So if they succeed, Colectivo will become a blueprint for other workplaces that aspire to unionize. 

The organizers have built an incredible network of support and communication, through meetings, Q&A sessions, educational social media posts, and raising resources to support struggling co-workers. They’ve laid the foundation for the solidarity and cooperation that any successful union needs, and are ready to begin the fight to bargain for better working conditions for their co-workers. 

What’s first for a newly minted Colectivo union? A contract that enshrines regular raises and performance reviews, guarantees notice for scheduling changes, protects workers through proper safety standards and training, and which clarifies language about laying workers off. 

Ryan Coffel sums it up, saying “If we were to win, we would be the largest unionized cafe. But I don’t want it to stay that way very long. It’s my hope that our campaign inspires others across the country to do the same thing.” 

So the next time you find yourself in a Colectivo Coffee, order your coffee or pastries under the name “UnionYes,” to show your support for the union. Take a picture and share it on social media with the hashtags #unionyes and #ibewstrong. 

Mary Difino expresses solidarity with the striking workers.