Graham Kilmer

Colectivo Owners Oppose Union

Popular coffee company's owners sent a letter to employees discouraging unionization.

By - Aug 25th, 2020 03:35 pm
Colectivo Coffee with walk-up windows in Riverwest. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Colectivo Coffee with walk-up windows in Riverwest. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

After workers went public with plans to organize a union at Colectivo Coffee, the company’s owners sent a letter to employees urging them not to join a union.

The letter was signed by Colectivo’s three owners, Lincoln Fowler, Ward Fowler and Paul Miller. The letter, as the owners wrote, was intended to “share with you why we strongly oppose the unionization efforts.”

The owners argue that a union will be bad for the culture of the company and act as an impediment to communication. They also argue that it will be bad for individual employees, saying the union will cost them money and can’t actually guarantee anything.

They also said the company is struggling because of the pandemic. It’s doing approximately 60 percent of the sales it enjoyed before the pandemic and employment is at approximately 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels. The owners said Colectivo is losing money noting, “we have been and will continue to borrow money from lenders.”

Colectivo workers are organizing with the help of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 494. When Urban Milwaukee first learned of the company letter, Dean Warsh, business manager for IBEW 494, described it as “a typical letter that employers send out to employees when they are looking to organize a Union. Plenty of examples on the internet.”

Mackenzie Arndt, a Colectivo employee and organizer, said the language in the letter was boiler-plate “anti-union rhetoric.” The letter, she said, was “a fear mongering tactic.”

In their letter, the owners said a union would “fundamentally change our Culture” by “adding a third party.” They said, “Camaraderie and respect would be replaced by workplace rules” snd a union would “change and undermine what’s most special about Colectivo — our close and collaborative relationship with our co-workers.”

Arndt disagrees. She said the entire impetus for organizing a union is to give workers the leverage to better communicate with upper management. The situation on the ground in Colectivo Cafes and warehouses, Arndt said, is not very well understood by the upper management.

Saying the company culture of camaraderie and communication would be changed by a union “is just a way to shut down us having a voice, which we don’t really have right now,” Arndt said. In an email, Warsh told Urban Milwaukee that unions are not a third party, but are made of the same workers that are in the cafes today.“I don’t understand how guaranteeing safety, hours of work, pay, and such depletes camaraderie and respect,” he added. 

The owners also argued that workers would not be able to speak for themselves. “The election of a union would require leadership to deal with the union, rather than each of you directly, in all matters involving wages, hours of work and working conditions. In a union setting you lose your voice — instead the union speaks for you.”

Unionization would not rob workers of their voice, Arndt said. Quite the opposite, she said, companies that don’t like unionization “feel threatened when employees are sticking up for themselves.”

The owners also wrote, “Unions make money by selling memberships and your union dues would pay the organizers salary.” And they argue that the union cannot guarantee their union dues will yield anything positive on behalf of the workers. “If they have been honest, they would tell you that they cannot guarantee anything,” the owners wrote. “The union can’t force the company to comply with anything. Instead, the company simply needs to negotiate in good faith.”

“The employees ARE the union,” Warsh said in an email. “They decide what issues are the most important to them and negotiate their agreement with the assistance of an experienced IBEW negotiator.” He also noted that dues go to much more than organizer salaries — which are voted on by members — and may pay for pension benefits, sick and death benefits, membership training and education, membership outings and charitable donations.

In their letter, the owners said Colectivo is a “progressive organization” and noted that they have donated to the Unity Campaign and participate in NAACP partnership actions. Arndt agreed that it is a generally progressive company and noted that the union would be in that tradition of progressivism.

Urban Milwaukee made attempts to seek comment from Colectivo owners and has not heard back.

A full copy of the letter is available on Urban Milwaukee.

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.

Categories: Business, Food & Drink

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us