Colectivo Coffee Workers Form America’s Largest Cafe Union

Colectivo Coffee, the Wisconsin-based chain with five Chicago-area locations, is set to become the largest unionized workforce at a U.S. coffee chain after a contentious battle for over a year between organizers and management.

Preliminary returns from an April election showed a deadlock with seven challenged ballots remaining. Over protests from company ownership, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) earlier in August decided to count these ballots and on Monday announced that pro-union employees could join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) with a vote of 106 to 99. About 400 workers will be represented, according to a union rep. Before these election results, the largest cafe union existed in Buffalo, New York where SPoT Coffee, has about 130 members.

Company leadership has expressed unhappiness with the result, claiming in an open letter that the majority of its employees do not support unionization, but write that they plan to move forward and “bargain in good faith.”

Colectivo workers teamed up with IBEW due to the organization’s resources — something most hospitality workers don’t have access to, and one of the many reasons unions haven’t taken off in the restaurant industry. Volunteer organizers on Monday reacted on social media declaring “history has been made.”

“We couldn’t have accomplished this without the unimaginable amount of support we’ve received,” an Instagram post from organizers reads. “Savoring this victory today, and soon, we’ll begin writing our first contract!”

Organizers tell Eater Chicago that the last 24 hours have been a whirlwind so they’re not sure when contract negotiations will begin, but anticipates they’ll start circulating surveys in the coming weeks to home in on employee priorities.

Colectivo, which first landed in Chicago in 2017, currently operates outposts in Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Logan Square, Andersonville, and suburban Evanston. Originally founded in Milwaukee, the company has about 350 employees spread across more than a dozen locations in Illinois and Wisconsin.

Founded in Milwaukee, Colectivo has long touted itself as a progressive company, holding voter registration events at its cafes and raising funds for America’s Black Holocaust Museum. When workers began to organize, the chain’s co-founders and CEO hired “union avoidance” company that used common union-busting tactics to try and stymie organizing efforts. The brand’s leadership has told reporters that they are not anti-union in general.

“This will make Colectivo the largest unionized cafe chain in the country, and will likely open to door to more organizing efforts at bigger chains,” In These Times editor Miles Kampf-Lassin notes on Twitter.

Colectivo leadership responded to the NLRB’s annoucement Monday on social media, claiming that less than a third of eligible “co-workers” — the company’s term for employees, and a close proxy for Starbucks’ “partners” — supported the union.

“We are disappointed by this result because a majority of our coworkers did not vote in favor of unionization and because the NLRB counted votes of several individuals who announced their resignations prior to the close of the election,” the post reads. “At final count, less than one third of the eligible co-workers supported the union, and as of today, it is our best estimate that fewer than 100 of our current 440 co-workers voted for this union. We will, of course, respect the rules and bargain in good faith.”

As Colectivo ownership complains Monday about workers no longer with the company having influence on the election, it should be noted that during organizing multiple workers said the company fired employees for voicing pro-union sentiments. Colectivo representatives have denied these claims, and the NLRB has dismissed several as being without merit.

Many commenters on Facebook and Instagram took umbrage with company’s posts. Some pointed out a gap between the company’s name and its actions regarding unionization: “I don’t understand how you can be against your employees having the ability to collectively bargain for fair wages and working conditions,” one user writes. “I mean it’s right there in your name!”

Another did some quick math: “If you’re saying most votes to unionize came from past employees (with 440 employees that be 221 yes votes needed for a simple majority and if you have 100 yes votes among current employees, that means at minimum 121 people — 27.5 percent of your current staff — have left and been replaced since this process started). That’s kinda telling.”

A screenshot of an Instagram comment.

An Instagram reply to Colectivo Coffee’s statement on the results of its union election.

“You all used every anti-union intimidation tactic. Including spending large amounts of money on an anti-union firm. Nothing you report about the union will ever be accurate because you want to continue to exploit the labor of your workers,” writes a third.

The company is now restricting comments on both Instagram and Facebook, notifications at the bottom of each post show.

A current cafe worker and volunteer organizer (who comments anonymously as they weren’t authorized by the company to speak with media) tells Eater that the union’s victory is bigger than just one company. Told for years that it was “impossible” to unionize a cafe — a view they say was repeated so often it started to seem true — they hope the final tally serves as proof positive that it can be done.

“What kept me going was knowing that when we won, it would show baristas, bakers, servers, etc. that it is POSSIBLE!” they wrote. “There are labor organizations chomping at the bit to help! Reach out and start the conversation.”

Read Colectivo ownership’s full statement below:

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