First contract talks will be next test for Colectivo, employees

Union organizers celebrate election win; company ‘disappointed’ with outcome

By: - August 26, 2021 6:47 am

By Pete CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

After almost a year and a half fighting for union representation, Colectivo Coffee employees who organized the campaign now have a new challenge: getting their first contract.

Hillary Laskonis (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

Their concerns will include proper maintenance for equipment in the Colectivo stores, the warehouse and the roasting operations, according to Hillary Laskonis, a Milwaukee Colectivo barista who became one of the principal organizers for the union effort. She told reporters Wednesday that other items include how scheduling is organized and how sick days are handled. But the details and priorities will be finalized after seeking still input from all of the coffee chain’s employees.

“So much has changed from before the pandemic to now that we are going to really be diligent about surveying our co-workers across departments,” Laskonis said. 

Two days after union supporters won a majority in the final count of ballots in the representation election, Laskonis and other Colectivo employees active in the organizing campaign celebrated at a news conference outside the Milwaukee offices of their new union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). 

“I’m really excited to move forward in this process,” said Ida Lucchesi, another Colectivo employee and union supporter. In the course of the organizing campaign, “we have really worked as a unit and gotten to know a lot of people across the company,” she added. “I think it’ll also be really important to show other people in the service industry that it can be done.”

The union election covered employees in all Colectivo stores in the metro areas of Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. With as many as 300 employees or more represented, the election makes Colectivo the largest unionized coffee shop chain in the country, said Dean Warsh, business manager of IBEW Local 494. “We hope to hold that record for a very short time,” he quipped. “Hopefully others will take our lead and move on.”

Stephanie Bloomingdale, Wisconsin AFL-CIO president (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

State and local union leaders who joined the news conference stressed both the long-fought unionizing campaign, as well as the importance of getting a first labor agreement. Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Stephanie Bloomingdale called on the company “to do the right thing, to get to the bargaining table immediately and bargain a fair contract.”

Underlying the calls for a first contract is the reality that over the last several decades, securing a first agreement has gotten more difficult for unions, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, D.C., that advocates for broader and stronger unions. Union advocates contend that management recalcitrance has made it easier for employers to stall on an initial agreement, wearing down rank-and-file support.

‘Disappointed’ in outcome

In a statement posted on the company’s website, Colectivo’s owners and top management acknowledged the outcome of the vote but said they were “disappointed” by the result and criticized the process that National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) officials used to qualify who could vote. 

Colectivo’s statement objected that among the pro-union votes were five employees who had later resigned. But the five met all the necessary standards for their votes to be counted under established NLRB policy and the process that was set forth in advance, according to the NLRB’s Minneapolis regional director, Jennifer Hadsall, whose region includes Wisconsin. 

The five were on the payroll the week ending Feb. 21, as the election order had stipulated, and they were still working for the company when they mailed their ballots in March, Hadsall wrote in a May 7 order. That order cleared those five ballots to be counted along with two others that had also been challenged, resulting in the final 106-99 tally in favor of the union.

With the hiring of new employees, “it is our best estimate that fewer than 100 of our current 440 co-workers voted for this union,” the Colectivo management statement said. It added: “We will, of course, respect the rules and bargain in good faith.”

Dean Warsh, IBEW 494 business manager (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

Warsh said the union has tried to communicate with new employees and expressed confidence that there is support among new hires along with the original employees.

Laskonis agreed. “I think that we’ve had engagement, really, from all the workers” at Colectivo, “whether they were there when we were taking the vote, and either voted for the union or [voted no] to give the company a second chance,” she said. “We’ve seen more support, actually, building since the original vote count.”

Once the NLRB formally certifies the union, Warsh said, the union will conduct a survey of all the represented employees on what is important to them in a first contract. A bargaining team of employees will also be assembled to negotiate.

Selling Colectivo, selling the union

While negotiations happen at the bargaining table, the union and Colectivo are also in a contest for public opinion. 

The company’s opposition to the union drive has made it a target for customers who sympathize with unionization at the coffee company. The company’s use of an anti-union consultant that held employee meetings to discourage support for the union led to criticism on social media and other venues.

Colectivo initially had posted its post-election statement on its Instagram and Facebook pages, where visitors responded with critical comments, according to people who saw the posts. The company subsequently deleted its statement from both sites. 

Two later Facebook posts, one advertising a limited run of a new specialty coffee and the other endorsing a school supplies charity drive, drew dozens of comments castigating Colectivo’s attempt to thwart the union and praising the organizing campaign.

An electric sign outside IBEW 494’s union office in Milwaukee changes from this… (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

The IBEW and the Colectivo workers supporting it, meanwhile, have sought to demonstrate the extent of their community support by doing what organizers call a “reverse boycott” — encouraging customers to purchase Colectivo products while signaling their backing for the union, such as including “Union Strong” when a customer gives a name for an order.

With Labor Day coming up, that strategy will be renewed, said Warsh: “We’re asking all the members of the community over this Labor Day weekend, go to a Colectivo Coffee shop and thank and congratulate all the employees on their hard-fought victory.”

…to this. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

The union and the pro-union employees will also be trying to convince Colectivo that while they bargain to improve working conditions, their ability to participate through the union will help the company, not hurt it.  “We’re about growing the company,” said Warsh. “Because if the company doesn’t succeed, the employees don’t succeed. [If] they’re not making money, the employees aren’t making money.”

Laskonis predicted that with ongoing labor shortages, particularly in service industries, workers will gain more power that unionizing will help them channel.

There will also be new employees at Colectivo. 

“That is a factor that we have to consider as organizers, keep that engagement active and stay on engaging those new workers — but we’ve been really successful with that so far,” Laskonis said. “And, you know, if you know anybody who needs a job, or maybe likes coffee … we are hiring!”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with 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. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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