Colectivo Coffee Union Organizer: “We Must Be Doing Something Right” The definition of "colectivo."

Colectivo Coffee Union Organizer: “We Must Be Doing Something Right”

In March of 2021, workers at Colectivo Coffee voted to form a union. When this election is certified, Colectivo, which has locations in Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee, will be the largest unionized coffee chain in America with a bargaining unit of nearly 300 members. After pledging to accept the results of the election and bargain in good faith, Colectivo’s ownership has instead used every available appeal to delay certification and a first contract. The workers who won this historic victory have now waited nearly a year for the company to admit defeat and come to the table.

The ruling class understands the threat to their bottom line if this victory snowballs. In December, a Buffalo Starbucks location won that chain’s first union, and a second location was certified in January, with more elections to come. In the weeks leading up to that election, senior level Starbucks executives descended on the Buffalo locations to cajole workers to vote no. It didn’t work. Since then, more Starbucks locations around the country have filed for union elections, including two in Chicago.

Ryan Coffel is a shift leader at Colectivo’s Logan Square location and a leading organizer in the Colectivo union campaign. His perspective on that campaign is illuminating as more coffee shop workers take bold action to transform their working conditions.



Brendan: What were the inciting issues that made you want to get involved in this campaign? Was there a moment when you and your coworkers realized that you wanted to organize a union instead of throwing in the towel and looking for another job? Did you look anywhere for inspiration?

Ryan: I’ve worked in cafes for 15 years, I’ve worked at Starbucks and a handful of other places. And any time something bad would happen, we’d kind of joke around about unionizing, but it was always with this sense of “This doesn’t happen, it’s impossible to organize a cafe.” You start believing that, and you start feeding into it. 

I got very interested in labor rights and unions in general during the Gawker organizing campaign in 2012. They were writing about it all the time, so it was like a play-by-play, and it sounded so cool. Then, in October 2018, Deadspin walked out of their newsroom and started Defector later that year. That was an awesome solidarity moment that made an actual, meaningful change.

There was also an organizing drive at Stone Creek Coffee in Milwaukee in 2018. One of their baristas came in when I first started at Colectivo and told me about their campaign, which was close to a vote. They thought they had it in the bag and that they were going to be the first cafe union in the Midwest. I emailed one of their organizers letting them know I was interested in doing this in Chicago. I was asking “what kind of resources do you have if I’ve never done this? What did you do to make it a reality?” Then they lost their NLRB election by one vote and most of the organizers were terminated, which made me think, “I guess we do live in hell and it’s impossible for anything like this to happen.” So I kind of put it out of my head.

I was promoted to store manager at the Wicker Park Colectivo. When I had to do something that workers didn’t like, like scheduling people on holidays, I would just say “Hey, if you can make a union happen you can change this. You could actually have a say in it.” On New Year’s Day 2020, we were told that there was a glitch with payroll and our checks would be coming out late. Some people were worried that they weren’t going to be able to afford rent that month without that check. One of my shift leaders spoke up and pushed the company to pay people out of the register if they needed it, and the pressure worked. A week later, I was told that I had to let that shift leader go. That wasn’t coming from me, his direct supervisor––that was coming from my supervisor. I said “Absolutely not. He is my strongest shift leader. I can’t afford to lose him.” I told them that I didn’t feel comfortable firing this person when they couldn’t even tell me the reason they were letting him go. It got to the point where they said “Well, it’s him or you at this point.” I knew I couldn’t ethically do the store manager position anymore. So I said, “OK, you can let him go, and I am stepping down. I will not be your general manager anymore. I would like to go back to Logan Square and be a shift leader.” That really fired me up, too. 

I was a lot happier as a shift leader. And then COVID happened and we got laid off. Being in Chicago, I didn’t know that a handful of Colectivo workers in Milwaukee circulated a petition to close down the stores and still pay people and it worked. That wasn’t really publicized by anyone, and I just thought the company did it out of the goodness of their heart––which is dumb. I had no idea that at that point a handful of our workers in the warehouse had been talking to different labor unions about organizing.

 I was laid off for 90 days. I came back to our Andersonville location, and a coworker sheepishly walked up to me and said “Hey, we’re doing this thing where we might unionize––” and I was like, “You can stop right now. What do I need to sign? How can I help? I want to be a part of this.” That was when I started getting the confidence that this could actually happen, because I never would have expected this coworker to be involved in the labor struggle. We never really talked about how shitty things were, they just put their head down and got things done. But the more I talked to other people, the more I realized that a lot of us were on board, like “Holy shit, this could actually work. There’s a lot more people than I thought. We could do this.” 

Brendan: With so many people thinking and feeling the same way, how do you think you missed each other before?

Ryan: I have been racking my brain about that for the longest time. How did we miss this? And we still joke about it today. That coworker even said,  “We kind of thought you’d be an easy sell, but we didn’t think you would stop me before I could even get the word ‘union’ out or ask you to sign a card.” I felt, maybe validation is the wrong word, but elation. I was so excited that it wasn’t just me, that there were more people in Chicago and Milwaukee and Madison who were fighting too. I realized that if we did this, not only was it going to make our lives better, but every other cafe and restaurant around us, unionized or not, was going to be affected. This was during the dark days of Trump, when everything seemed like it was doom and gloom. Bernie was already getting smashed and having a heart attack and pulling out of the race. It was like, “Holy shit. We could actually do something good. There could be something that we can be proud of when everything else feels out of our control.” And I mean, who doesn’t want to stick it to your boss? 

I started attending the union meetings and our numbers started growing and growing. I think the IBEW was really good at propping us up and showing us the victories that we had already won together – sending petitions to get Colectivo to put Black Lives Matter somewhere in the cafe or on Instagram, or just to respond to George Floyd’s murder – that was already working like a union. We just didn’t know what to call it. Another big catalyst in the beginning was that the Wicker Park location was pretty close to where a lot of the riots were going on and those workers didn’t feel safe. Their manager stood up for them and then that manager got terminated. That was a big solidarity moment, and I think that that’s when we all started realizing that we need a union. 

Brendan: How did Colectivo end up organizing with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers? 

Ryan: IBEW was actually our third choice. The Teamsters were first because they had organized Stone Creek. I can’t remember who was second, it might have been IWW, but the IBEW was the only organization that said we could get every Colectivo worker on one contract. It was important to the organizers that it be all or nothing, so there wouldn’t be any shenanigans like, “The Logan Square cafe just unionized. Oh, surprise, Logan Square is underperforming, we’re going to have to close it.” We wanted to be as big as possible so that we couldn’t have anything like that happen to us. 

And they were awesome. I mean, they went to the bakery and flyered the third shift at 2AM. In Chicago we did a caravan of IBEW folks that went store to store. It was five cars painted like a high school homecoming game, honking our horns and waving at the cafes. And Coelctivo corporate sent out an email saying, “Be careful of the assault of the IBEW,” like we needed to prepare for a siege. The words they were using, and how shook they were, that was a gift to our campaign. 

Brendan: What was the relationship like between the IBEW staff and the shop floor organizing committee?

Ryan: Almost from the beginning, we realized that because we were already in the thick of the pandemic we weren’t going to be able to have face to face meetings. Everything would have to be through Zoom. We had to do a lot of organizing, getting phone numbers and email addresses, just to invite people to meetings. That pushed us to be more comfortable having these conversations. We just took the lead where we felt comfortable. We had been doing this for so long that we knew what issues were going to bring people in. And let’s be real, IBEW organizes electricians and warehousing, they’ve never had any experience with cafes. So we were learning together how to do this, and we both had strong points. It was, and still is, very collaborative. They give us ideas that they think will work and we workshop them out. And if we think they’ll work, we push forward. But if we don’t like an idea, they don’t keep trying to push it. They’re just like, “OK, well, you know best. Let’s move on. Let’s do something different.” 

Brendan: Colectivo has shops in two states, plus a production bakery. What gaps did you find in your organizing committee at the beginning? And how, in the face of a pandemic, did you make inroads in places where you didn’t have density or didn’t have connections? 

Ryan: Our challenge then and even now continues to be not having a solid contact in every location. Typically, we’ll get someone that we can rely on and then they move on or something happens and they kind of ghost us. Right now, a couple of us know that our home stores are solid because we’re talking about the union with our coworkers all the time. So we committed to each other that we’re going to go to different stores on different days, grab a cup of coffee, and talk to the person at the register. “Have you heard about the union? Do you know what’s going on? Would you like more information? Can I count on you to come to a meeting? Can I count on you to pass out this information?”

The anti-union campaign was really intense, so I don’t blame people for being weary, especially when you don’t have a strong leader that has gone through it and keeps spitting in the owners’ faces. At one point one of our organizers was a trainer, and when you’re a trainer, you get access to the entire company’s roster. So we had everyone’s phone number, we had everyone’s email address and so we could start blasting it right away, which is why they were one of the first people fired and management took away that access. So now none of us can see the roster anymore. I can’t even look at what my coworkers’ phone numbers are.

Brendan: This was your first organizing drive, so it was also your first experience of union-busting. What happened when Colectivo brought in Labor Relations, Inc?

Ryan: Our plan was to be fully ready so we could announce the campaign and immediately call an NLRB election. But we hit a wall with card signings, and we wanted to do something that would make people feel more comfortable signing a card. So we sent Colectivo a letter on IBEW letterhead: “We are organizing a union with the IBEW. Here are the 11 members of the organizing committee. Please don’t retaliate against them.” I think Colectivo management thought there were only 11 of us who wanted the union, not 11 of us willing to have our names known by the company. And I’m not saying that to slight anyone who didn’t want their name on there, but there were 11 of us who were just like, “Hell, yeah, let them do something to us.” Management underestimated us from the beginning and that really worked in our favor. 

After we sent the letter, they started the first round of union-busting meetings. They hired two consultants, one for Chicago, one for Milwaukee and Madison, for an absurd amount — fifteen hundred bucks a day! The one that I dealt with, Pat, had this “kindly old cowboy from Oklahoma coming to the big city” thing going on. The company said that he was a labor expert, but any time we would say, “Well, you’re an expert on this, right?” He said “No, no, no, no, no, I’m just consulting with the company. I just want to educate you on what the National Labor Relations Act is.” It was billed as an educational thing, but what was really strange and jarring was that no one in management came to these meetings. It was just hourly workers and the union buster. The head of H.R. came in to do a ten-minute speech: “This is a safe space. You can say whatever you want, it will never get back to management. Pat is going to talk to you guys about what’s really in the National Labor Relations Act and what unions really are.” 

Then Pat went straight into his “unions are only out to take your money and they don’t want to do anything,” boilerplate union-busting playbook. Luckily, IBEW had helped prepare us for captive audience meetings, so we knew what to expect. If you had had a bingo card, you would have been yelling bingo within 15 minutes. 

Our general manager at the time was very friendly with us. He would tell us things that he wasn’t supposed to, and he said that after the first meeting, Pat came to him and said that he was going to have his hands full, and specifically pointed out me and one of my coworkers because we asked questions.

Brendan: After all the safe space talk, he goes and tells your manager?

Ryan: Exactly! I think that meeting was more them taking our temperature, “What do they actually know? How serious is this?” At that point they decided it wasn’t that serious, just a handful of people. They thought they’d ride it out and it would go away. 

When we called our NLRB election in February, LRI came back in full force. I think Colectivo bought the union-busting gold package. We started having captive audience meetings all the time. We would get targeted emails. It seemed like every other day we got a new “vote no” poster. The funniest one was like, “Did you know that the people in the IBEW are a bunch of old white men? Do you want old white men running things?” But the owners of Colectivo are three old white dudes! It completely backfired. 

Colectivo rented out movie theaters for the second round of captive audience meetings and moved people’s schedules around so they could go. This was before vaccines, when COVID was peaking, and they packed 150-200 people into a room. But vocal organizers like me were scheduled to work so we couldn’t go. I asked the head of HR why I couldn’t attend and he just said “Ryan, we already know where you stand. We don’t think you need to be there. We don’t want to waste your time.” 

The weekend before the NLRB election, we were allowed to go to the final union busting meeting in the movie theater. It was the owners, the CEO, the director of coffee purchasing, and Pat the union buster. He didn’t speak, so he got paid 1500 bucks an hour just to sit there. It was supposed to be the owners giving their final plea to vote no. But on the movie screen they had this video of African people dancing and chanting playing on a loop, and they never explained what that was or gave any context. So how does Paul Miller, the CFO, try to win over a bunch of minimum wage workers? He says, “Back in 2018, the Colectivo owners and I had a really great opportunity to travel the world and see where our coffee is produced.” What’s more relatable than traveling the world on a corporate dime? “The most interesting place we stopped was Rwanda. There, we witnessed victims of the genocide and perpetrators of the genocide, working hand in hand. And so if they can forgive each other and set aside their differences, we as a company can do the same.” I almost fell out of my chair. That was something that I will go to the grave with. 

Brendan: Wait, who does he think is who in this situation? Who’s the victim, who’s the perpetrator? 

Ryan: It was just ill-advised. And that was the only time it was said! We met up with other coworkers afterwards, and I asked if the Rwanda story was brought up at their meetings, and it wasn’t. So that must have been an improv moment where he thought, “This is going to be really inspiring.” 

Brendan: “This is going to be the applause line.”

Ryan: “Please clap.” 

Brendan: So you have the election, then what happens?

Ryan: Our first election was in March. It was a tie, not counting 16 challenged ballots. It took until August for the Board to even say, “OK, we can count the challenged ballots.” That’s when we officially won by seven votes. Colectivo said at first that they would bargain in good faith, but now they’re trying to throw out the entire election claiming voter fraud. It’s “stop the steal” all over again. 

Brendan: What are they saying that you did?

Ryan: They’re claiming organizers like me doctored or filled out people’s mail-in ballots. What I actually did was organize a ballot mailing party at my shop. We sent out group texts saying “Hey, to make sure everyone gets their ballot in and makes their voice heard, we’re asking everyone to meet after work on this day. Make sure that your ballot is already sealed and ready to go. No one can see it but you. We’re all going to meet outside Colectivo, walk to the post office, and put our letters in the mail.” Colectivo claimed that I took everyone’s ballot, filled them out myself and then dumped them in the mailbox. And since there are seven workers at the Logan Square Colectivo and we won by seven ballots, they’re saying I’ve committed the biggest voter fraud in history.

In September, a regional NLRB judge held a hearing over Colectivo’s objections, and a handful of us had to give a deposition and be cross-examined by lawyers and all that stuff. 

Brendan: What was it like being cross-examined by Colectivo’s lawyers in front of a judge? 

Ryan: Well, it was a little special to me because I had just won a long battle with the company to allow me to take a two-week vacation. My partner and I had booked a trip to Puerto Rico once COVID rates started going down. I hadn’t taken a vacation in two years. I had the PTO, and the Colectivo handbook says that I can take up to two weeks off, so it was approved by my boss at the time. The district manager came to me five weeks before my vacation and said, “We’re shorthanded and there’s no way we can approve this time off.” And I said, “Well, It’s already been approved. It’s not my problem that we’re shorthanded. Moving people around is your job, not mine.” Then they tried to compromise and offer me one week off and I said, “Absolutely not. I already have it booked. If you do this, I’m going to be losing a lot of money. Are you going to reimburse me? No? Cool. Great. I’m going on vacation.” And they just wouldn’t accept that. 

It got to the point where the vice president of operations and I were going back and forth and I got the IBEW involved. I sent them our employee handbook, they had their lawyers look over it, and they assured me that I was in the right. Colectivo eventually said:  “OK, well, here’s the deal. You’re going to be scheduled to work and you can deal with the consequences.” 

So I called off work every single day on the second week of my vacation. We had planned so far ahead that we were ready to file an unfair labor practice if I got fired when I came back from vacation. I walked into work on that first day ready for management to say, “You need to clock out, go home.” But it was just, “Welcome back, team meeting in half an hour,” like nothing had happened. No one said a thing to me. It had all been this game of chicken to try to push me into submission, and it didn’t work. 

Brendan: They went through all that just to try to intimidate you? 

Ryan: Absolutely. I think that’s definitely something they learned from that “labor consultant”: how to bully your crew into doing what you need them to do. 

Brendan: Did the experience of playing that game of chicken all the way through and going on vacation despite the threats change how you felt sitting in that NLRB hearing? 

Ryan: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Colectivo had just made me feel invincible. If you’re not going to back up what you say, then it’s just words. It’s just wind. And regardless of what you do, I actually have a union behind me now that’s going to protect me from your nonsense. I think they’re slowly coming to the realization that the power that they’ve had over us for twenty-six-odd years is dwindling and that they’re not going to be able to pull this shit anymore. 

The NLRB hearing was on my first full day in Puerto Rico. I had to go to court over Zoom. I positioned my camera to look out onto the beach while I was being cross-examined. It was another way to stick it to them, like, “Here I am on vacation while you’re trying to accuse me of voter fraud.” 

We had saved everything, and we gave them all the evidence. We gave them the text messages, all of these things that proved that we were well within the law. I had made sure that when people showed up at the store we were in view of the camera, and when I was getting cross-examined I told them, “Ask Colectivo to pull that surveillance footage, and you’ll see that none of us have our ballots out because they were already sealed and ready to go.” After that hearing the NLRB ruled that there was no evidence to support their claims and recommended throwing out the objection. But in late November, they filed what are called “exceptions” to the ruling.

Brendan: If they’ve already had the appeal turned down once, is there still a way for them to win all the marbles? 

Ryan: I don’t believe so. But now they’re attacking the judge, saying that they are interpreting the law wrong. Because a regional judge made this call, they can appeal it to the federal level and we’ll have to wait even longer, which, if I’m being honest with you, we all are expecting to happen. If they somehow win an appeal, it’s going to be a new election. I think that they’re hoping that if that happens, fewer people will be involved in organizing to vote yes. They want more of an in-person election so that they can intimidate people at the ballot box. 

Logan Square has always been a very militant, labor friendly store, and since I’ve been there the store has completely turned over three times. I’m the only person there now that voted in the election. Everyone else is new. 

We are very confident that nothing is going to happen, that the NLRB is just going to keep ruling in our favor. It’s just straight up delay tactics because the law allows them to appeal as many times they want. They think that by delaying it as long as they are, the organizers will get frustrated, the coworkers will get frustrated and the more vocal supporters will leave the company. At this point it’s like a war of attrition, of who’s going to break first. Which is, in my opinion, absolutely silly. We’ve been doing this for two years. Why would we give up now when we’re so close to the finish line? 

Brendan: Does IBEW have a plan to escalate in case they just keep delaying? 

Ryan: Well we had an escalation plan in place but then we heard that it’s most likely going to go federal. So we’re tweaking the plan, but it’s still going to be a rally at Colectivo HQ in Milwaukee and a petition signed by both coworkers and customers saying “accept the results and bargain in good faith like you said you would.” We’re going to try to get more politicians to come on board because again, Colectivo has this “progressive” brand. Stephanie Bloomingdale, who’s the Wisconsin AFL-CIO leader came in and talked to the owners like “You either have to allow this victory to happen or you can’t call yourself progressive anymore.” 

We have taken the high road this entire campaign. And we’ve just been itching to go low on them with this, and this will be the moment for it. We have a handful of new ULPs filed, and we’re going to get the results from those. It’s going to be pretty hard for them to look anything less than shitty. 

Brendan: It also sounds like you’re making good use of the time, right? You’re doing mock collective bargaining to prepare?

Ryan: Yeah, it’s a class at University of Wisconsin-Madison that IBEW Local 494 in Milwaukee coordinated. We’ve already done a 3 week steward training over Zoom learning “What is a steward? What does that entail? What’s that going to look like in your shop?” So once we get certified, we’re going to be ready to start writing our proposals for bargaining and we’re going to have stewards who are trained and in place and ready to go. 

Brendan: Having gone through this process, what do you think of the NLRB ?

Ryan: Initially with the Trump administration, there were literal union busters on the Board so, naturally, a lot of filings would get stalled for reviews. We got the feeling that they weren’t going to go through anyway, and the more strategic move was to rescind them and move on. Once more labor-friendly members got on the Board, things started falling more in our favor. The board agent who was reviewing our unfair labor practices would call back for more information like, “you’ve got a really good case. I just need to ask you a question about this…” It seemed like things started moving faster, but overall everything happened at a snail’s pace. This is my first organizing campaign. I’ve never been a part of a union before. I’ve always watched from the outside. The thing that I quickly learned is how slowly our government moves. These appeals can take up to six weeks to get a hearing. And then it’s more waiting. That’s the waiting game. That’s the thing that sucks. 

Brendan:  What do Colectivo workers need to beat this delay tactic and put all your training to good use winning your first contract? What kind of support can socialists offer? 

Ryan: We are asking people to call Colectivo HQ Monday through Friday between 8am and 5pm, respectfully ask to be transferred to one of the owners, and tell them to stop delaying. Also, blow up their email account. The first day that we did that, our phones “coincidentally” went down for an hour, so we know it worked. 

We are planning a big push for a public facing action that will get more media coverage. I think our biggest opportunity is in Milwaukee and in Madison; Chicago is pretty much locked down when it comes to support. It’s really great when people come into Colectivo and order their drinks with the name “union strong” or just talk to the person at the register like, “Yo, this is really cool that you guys won this union. That’s awesome. What are you guys up to?” It helps make coworkers feel comfortable talking about it. The first tactic that the union busters use is to make it sound like it’s a taboo topic that will get you in trouble, even though it’s not. I think people get really worried about what they can and can’t say about it. So when you start hearing customers talk about it, it helps. When we started doing this, I would get text messages on my days off with all the cups that had “Union strong” on them. It shows people that this is bigger than just our cafes. This is something that’s going to be beneficial for everyone. 

Brendan: Looking at what’s happening in the labor movement more broadly, based on your experience, why is this surge in organizing energy happening now? 

Ryan: I think more people are being backed into this fight-or-flight spot where historically you would just say “oh, it’s just a retail job, it’s going to be like this regardless of where you go. It doesn’t matter if you work at Starbucks or if you work at a little mom-and-pop cafe, it’s going to be hell because that’s just a job you work until you get your ‘real’ job or whatever.” But student loans are at an all time high. Debt everywhere is terrible, so why can’t this be a career? Why can’t retail jobs have protections like at any other job? Why not us? It’s been nice to see a lot of the wins happening lately, and I think that once you see one cafe unionize and it gets publicized, that gives confidence to countless people to just do it, because what’s the worst that could happen to you? You lose your job, you go to another cafe and you start all over again. 

There’s nothing else they can do to us at this point. You can’t dock our pay anymore, we’re already making minimum wage. You can’t take away benefits because like, what benefits? So why not start this battle and take back some power? 

You can call it like the “employee shortage” or whatever, but I think that that’s really just people starting to realize the power of workers. I think the idea of taking power from your bosses was always too abstract for people to see. But now we can just walk out and they don’t make any money. People are starting to think, “I’m not going to get treated like shit, I’m going to quit and leave.” And companies are doing everything they can to give incentives for people to stay. You start realizing that you could just get it all in writing and it will never go away. You get the carrot like, “We’re going to pay you ‘hero pay’ for the next two months.” OK, cool. So you can afford to pay us an additional three dollars an hour for two months during your “slow time” when you’re not making any money. What happens when we start making money and everyone comes back? You could afford it then, why can’t you afford it now? I think it’s just becoming clear how much money ownership makes and how much more money they could be paying out. They just don’t. 

Brendan: I work at Fight for $15, and throughout the pandemic fast food franchise owners have been claiming they need to short-staff this Popeyes or Burger King because “times are tough,” but they’ve also added Grubhub and DoorDash and tripled the volume of the drive-thru. 

Ryan: That is what’s happening with Colectivo! We’re short-staffed, but we have Uber Eats. We have a delivery feature in the app. So the foot traffic is less than it would have been two years ago, but now we have three different streams of people coming in when we used to have one. And we have to do that with six less people. 

Brendan: It shows you the gulf between the value that your work is creating and the value that you’re taking home. 

Ryan: Absolutely. Colectivo likes to do these fun feature drinks, right? Every other month is like a new seasonal drink that has one ingredient that you have to buy somewhere that is not used in any other thing. We’re just using it for that one drink for that one month. How can you say that you’re doing everything you can to cut back, you’re cutting back pastries, you’re cutting back our lunch menu, but then you’re not being efficient with the recipes and products you already have. Are we hunkering down or are we still spending recklessly? 

Brendan:  As a worker you’re compelled to accept the boss’s rhetoric as the economic truth of the situation, even though you can see that it isn’t. The willingness to push back against that and trust your sense and the sense of your coworkers that it can be better is really important. Where in culture or in politics are the perspectives of the people doing the work ever treated with the same regard as the views of the people making the money? 

Ryan: I mean, hell yeah. Bezos announces that he’s going back to the Moon or whatever the same day that a tornado killed six people in an Amazon warehouse. And that’s what we’re covering: Bezos getting in his dick rocket. It’s insane. 

Brendan: What concerns me is the degree to which labor organizations let the industry define the economic reality, or what is “realistic.”  One thing that I hear a lot is that unionizing retail food service is impossible and not worth trying, and that organizations fighting for those workers should focus on changing laws or policies, not going store by store or franchise group by franchise group or chain by chain doing union drives. Now with your victory, and the union victories at Starbucks in Buffalo, I think we’re starting to see a challenge to that perspective, and I think that’s a good thing. What do you think of the argument that it’s impossible and not worth trying to unionize retail foodservice? 

Ryan: In this pandemic era, I think a lot of organizations are still attached to what worked in the past. I think the IBEW, for example, had to learn from us when it comes to organizing with 20-year-olds who have always had the internet and done things differently. I think that the strategies just need to evolve to rely a little bit more on building your organizing committee up so that they can do a lot of the work. I think IBEW was used to standing outside of a warehouse and flyering everyone who came through. And when they did that at Colectivo, employees would see them as outsiders, and would see them as a third party. They don’t look like they work at cafes. They fit that mold of the grumpy construction worker or whatever. And the company uses that to their advantage, like “That’s what a union is like. Do you really want to work in a construction atmosphere?” So putting the onus on the actual volunteer organizing committees in the shops, sure, it’s a lot of work, but it’s much easier to convert someone when you’re talking to them as a coworker. You can relate in a way that I think some of the organizers from these older labor unions just aren’t able to yet, if that makes sense. 

Brendan: What are the lessons that this fight has taught you? What questions has it left you with? 

Ryan: I can’t think of any questions because the IBEW is typically out in front giving us a roadmap of what they think is going to happen, and they’ve been ninety-five percent correct on all of it. Almost to the minute when things would happen. I think the lesson that I’ve learned is that it just takes forever. It gets stalled, and there needs to be something to prevent that from happening. If you want a union and you voted yes for the union, your boss shouldn’t get an unlimited number of appeals. We won this in September. Really, we won in March, but the company challenged those ballots. So it’s going to be almost a year from when we won to when we’re certified. It shouldn’t be like this at all. And I think that’s my realization having gone through all of it. It is unfair to a fault, and probably by design. 

Brendan: Do you think that this experience has shifted your political perspective or consciousness? Or do you see that in your coworkers at all? 

Ryan: I think that it’s easy for that helplessness and the despair to creep in like, “Well, fuck it, no matter what we do, the company is always going to have something and it’s just going to be like this forever. I’ve been doing this for so long, I’m burnt out and I want to leave.” But at least for me, it pushes me even harder because if Colectivo is fighting this hard, if they’re throwing around all this money that they claim they don’t have, we must be doing something right.