Colectivo union vote nears finish line, challenges firm’s progressive image

By: - March 26, 2021 1:51 pm

A Colectivo Coffee shop in Milwaukee (Thomas Hawk | CC BY-NC 2.0)

More than 300 baristas, bakers, cooks, maintenance and other employees who work for Colectivo and its chain of coffee houses in Illinois and Wisconsin are voting this month on whether to join a union.

The election is being conducted by mail and supervised by the Milwaukee office of the National Labor Relations Board. Ballots were sent to employees on March 9 and are due by 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 30. They will be counted a week later, on Tuesday, April 6.

The Colectivo union drive has drawn widespread attention.

With more than 300 employees receiving ballots, it’s one of the largest union representation elections in Wisconsin in several years. The publication In These Times reported that if it succeeds, the privately held Colectivo would become the largest union-represented coffee chain in the country.

The campaign is also unusual because the employees who are seeking union representation have affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). While the IBEW predominantly represents electricians and utility workers, its members include a diverse array of occupations, among them nursing home employees, lawyers and museum staff.

Claiming unionization would harm the “culture” of the business, Colectivo has taken a hard line against the union, hiring a consulting firm that specializes in anti-union campaigns. The consultant has conducted what employees have said are mandatory meetings to dissuade workers from voting for the union.

The NLRB has dismissed unfair labor practice charges the union filed against the company, but on Wednesday, the union filed 10 new charges, alleging the company had “interfered with, restrained or coerced employees” exercising their rights under federal labor laws, through “intimidation and retaliation” targeting the union organizing committee and union supporters.

An aggressive stance by an employer is not uncommon when nonunion workers try to organize. But for union supporters inside and outside the company, Colectivo’s choice of tactics has undermined the image of a company that has long aligned itself with social justice causes. An article published Thursday on the Manhattan-based sports blog Defector is headlined: “How A ‘Deeply Progressive’ Coffee Chain Is Trying To Crush Its Workers’ Union.”

“As somebody who believed in the company, for a long time, and still kind of hope that it can become the company that I thought it was, it’s been really disappointing to kind of see the level of combativeness that the company has taken,” says barista Hillary Laskonis, a member of the workers’ organizing committee.

Political, community support

The pro-union employees have been keeping in touch with each other and the public on Instagram. Political leaders, including Congress members Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) and Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) have rallied behind the union drive. 

Instagram page for Colectivo Collective (Screen capture | Instagram)

Ten of the Milwaukee Common Council’s 15 alders signed a statement in September 2020 supporting the workers; eight members of the 17-member Milwaukee County Board did likewise in a statement that encouraged Colectivo employees to sign union certification cards — a standard step in union organizing drives that typically sets the stage for a vote on union representation.

The organizing drive also has sought to show the company that there is community support for the union. Instead of calling for a boycott of the Colectivo — which would have hurt employees whose jobs had already been reduced because of the coronavirus — the union and the employees announced what they called “a reverse boycott.”

They encouraged customers in support of the union drive to place orders asking for their coffee “IBEWStrong.” Users of the Colectivo Coffee smartphone app were suggested to put the phrase “IBEWSTRONG” before their first name on the app.

Laskonis describes Colectivo as a place of friendly camaraderie alongside recurring frustration at some of the day-to-day operations that employees believe make their work harder and less productive.

Throughout the 20 stores in Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago, “it’s like everybody seems to really like who they work with,” she says — while they also have “complaints about things like scheduling, and things like equipment not operating and then never being replaced, or being held together with temporary fixes.”

The organizing drive has been made more challenging by the pandemic as well as the mass layoffs it has produced. But the pandemic exposed issues that preceded it, she says.

“People have reached out to me and said, ‘You know, this is a long time coming,’ Laskonis says. “But I think the pandemic was the catalyst for really starting the organizing efforts.”


‘Apathy toward our working conditions’

In late 2019, employees grew restive in the warehouse and production side of the business where coffee is roasted and packaged, some of it for the stores but much of it to be shipped to mail-order customers. Annual performance reviews had been delayed for more than three months, according to Robert Penner, a former Colectivo employee. That delayed annual raises, he says, but the review was also the main opportunity for workers to draw managers’ attention to problems that interfered with their work.

“We were asking for regular maintenance on our equipment,” Penner says. “Some of our equipment had begun to fall apart and it was not being maintained properly.”

After repeatedly being put off, the group decided to band together and, on the same day, ask for their performance reviews. They got results at first — reviews, “pretty decent” raises and some progress on getting equipment repaired.

But Penner says the company never followed through on other promised improvements, such as training and certification for forklift machines, and the repair work tapered off.

“It was just another kind of message of apathy toward our working conditions, and what we have to say,” says Penner.

After several months on layoff, Penner was fired in the fall after having been told he could go back to work, he says. The NLRB dismissed an unfair labor practice charge that alleged he had been fired for his union support.

At the start of the pandemic, Laskonis says, as other coffee shop chains shut down and sent employees home with full pay for a couple of weeks, it took a petition on signed by employees and community supporters to get that at Colectivo. But during that time the production and warehouse workers had to continue working, she says, even though they had asked for paid time off as well.

Workers started getting hazard pay when some of the locations reopened for carryout and delivery service, but that didn’t last, adds Laskonis, who was laid off for several months.

Upset by how management had handled the pandemic’s effect on employees, some began looking into unions. Laskonis had a family connection with the IBEW; her father is an organizer with the union in Illinois. She was open to other unions, but concluded that with the IBEW’s willingness to organize the entire chain, instead of just focusing on individual locations, it was the best option available.

Lynn Arwood, a regional organizing director for the union who covers five states including Wisconsin and Illinois, says the IBEW’s ability to do nationwide campaigns and national agreements matched the two-state nature of Colectivo’s business. After first meeting in person with workers interested in the union, the organizing effort had to shift to online meetings because of the pandemic. 

“Their concerns were the concerns of all the groups that I’ve organized in the past,” says Arwood. “Dignity, respect and safety in the workplace. Lack of communication with the owners.”

‘Partnership’ rejected

Particularly in the construction industry, says Arwood, the IBEW has taken an approach to work with employers rather than taking an adversarial stance. “We have a long history of productive labor-management partnerships,” she says.

Colectivo management was unreceptive to that message, however. As Urban Milwaukee reported in August, from the moment the union drive went public the company opposed it, labeling the union as an outside party that would interfere with the company’s relationship with its employees. The company subsequently hired Labor Relations Institute, a ‘union avoidance’ consultant, which has since held numerous sessions with employees, deceptively criticizing the union, according to employees and the IBEW.

Colectivo’s three owners and its chief executive officer were not made available for an interview Thursday with the Wisconsin Examiner, but the company’s events and communications manager, Ramie Camarena, sent a copy of an undated letter that Camarena said was distributed to employees on Feb. 10, signed by the owners and CEO.

“We will be the first to acknowledge that we did not do everything perfectly — or even well — in the chaos of a global pandemic and parallel social justice movement,” the letter states.

“We want to be clear that as people with progressive values, we are not against the right to organize, and we are not anti-union,” the letter adds. “However, we do believe very strongly that this union, the International Brotherhood of  Electrical Workers, will not solve the challenges of this company and will not make your Colectivo experience better.”

The letter states that “We have heard the call for accountability” and promises new human resources practices, including “a focus on training and development, diversity and inclusion and increased communication.”

Laskonis says such messages haven’t directly faced the concerns that have led workers to seek a union.

“The company isn’t addressing those issues still,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘We know we’ve made mistakes, we could have done things better.’ But they won’t name those things. They claim that they can hold themselves accountable — but then if they won’t name the things that we want to be fixed, how can they do that?”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.