Graham Kilmer

Did Colectivo Hire Union Busters?

The Labor Relations Institute has sent high-priced consultants to discuss unionization with Colectivo employees.

By - Oct 8th, 2020 05:54 pm
Colectivo Coffee in Riverwest. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Colectivo Coffee in Riverwest. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

In early August employees at Colectivo Coffee went public with their effort to organize a union.

Shortly after the employees announced the effort, owners Lincoln Fowler, Ward Fowler and Paul Miller sent a letter to their employees expressing in no uncertain terms that they were opposed to the unionization effort. And now the local coffee chain has hired a high-priced firm that specializes in dealing with unions, preventing unions and beating unions in National Labor Review Board (NLRB) elections.

The organization is called Labor Relations Institute (LRI) and is based in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. According to a press release, it’s a consultancy that specializes in “maintaining the union-free workplace.” And on its website, among a number of services and products for sale, the firm advertises a book called ‘Total Victory” and boasts “we literally wrote the book in countering union organizing campaigns.”

Colectivo employees have been organizing with help of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 494. A spokesperson for Colectivo told Urban Milwaukee, “We have been holding informational meetings with experts on labor law, to listen and factually address our coworkers and their questions and concerns.” 

However, the services LRI advertises are, strictly speaking, intended to help employers stop or prevent burgeoning union activities, or win union elections. When it comes to the latter, they promote a win rate “of over 90%.” Colectivo union organizers say LRI is simply paid “union busters”. Naturally, the firm doesn’t use these words. Rather, LRI deals in what it calls “union avoidance.” The group markets a white paper called “Union Avoidance: 5 Keys to Winning Your Union Election.”

LRI advertises a handful of services and products. It sells “No Vote” buttons, door hangers and wrist bands that employers can use during a union election, similar to how political candidates hand out t-shirts and yard signs during a campaign. It sells strike calculators “to communicate the often complex idea of how much money a strike could cost an employee and his or her family.” The company also offers communication strategies and packages “crafted by labor relations and labor law specialists”

The company even offers to perform opposition research. LRI says it can provide an employer “up to the minute statistics on every union local in the United States. This data often provides the smoking gun argument needed to persuade employees that the union local seeking to represent them is not all it claims to be.”

When contacted, an LRI vice president declined to discuss the business and directed Urban Milwaukee to Phil Wilson, general counsel for LRI. Wilson has not responded to Urban Milwaukee.

Colectivo has hired LRI to consult on their employees ongoing attempt to unionize. And LRI subcontracted labor relations consultants to sit down with employees and as the Colectivo spokesperson put it, inform them of “ALL [sic] of their rights and their ability to exercise and express these rights.”

Hillary Laskonis, a Colectivo employee and and union organizer, put it differently. She told Urban Milwaukee that she attended a meeting at the company’s Humboldt location with a person named Gus Flores, where it appeared Flores was there to “intimidate, mislead, and at times outright lie to us.” Eric Funston, vice president of LRI, said Flores is not an LRI employee, rather he is a subcontractor that consults on LRI’s behalf. 

Laskonis’ father is Charles Laskonis, the IBEW state organizing coordinator for Illinois.

Hillary Laskonis said some of what Flores said they have already heard from the owners. For example, saying the union is a third party that will disrupt the company’s culture and open-communication policy between employees and management. While union organizers have told Urban Milwaukee that the leverage provided by a collective bargaining representative is what they feel they need to get upper management to start listening to them in the first place.

These in-person, subcontracted consultations are a specialty of LRI. The firm consults with companies all over the country on how to deal with unionization activities, according to documents the firm filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. And in each case, LRI subcontracted the work to one of a handful of consultants and typically charged the company anywhere from $375 per hour to $3,000 per day.

When firms like LRI consult with companies they have to file reports with the labor department explaining what they were contracted for and how much they were paid.

On these reports, LRI is required to note its activities in dealing with a union, to which it put down that it was, “Engaged to communicate to employees regarding exercising their rights to organize and bargain collectively.” The form also requires the company indicate if its efforts are “to persuade employees to exercise or not to exercise, or persuade employees as to the manner of exercising, the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.”

In its work with Colectivo, LRI subcontracted with Flores and Pat O’Mara of O’Mara & Associates, LLC.

Flores has handled meetings in Milwaukee, while O’Mara has held meetings with employees at Colectivo’s Chicago locations, Laskonis said.

O’Mara’s firm is frequently hired by LRI. In February it was paid $3,000 plus expenses to consult Archer-Daniels-Midland for one day.

The meetings with Flores and O’Mara were written into workers’ schedules, Laskonis said. And when an employee missed a meeting, Colectivo had it rescheduled. This had the effect, she said, of making the meetings feel mandatory.

When Laskonis met with Flores, she said Flores said a union could force workers to strike. And, according to Laskonis, he shared an anecdote about working at a grocery store that was unionized and that a strike forced the grocery story to close.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits employers threatening closure of a business if a union or labor organization comes into the workplace. Based on Laskonis’ description, that’s likely not what Flores did.

In 2006, brothers Gus Flores and Carlos Flores represented a company’s position to employees attempting to start a union at Alstyle Apparel in Anaheim, CA. A case ended up at the National Labor Relations Board, which ultimately found the company undertook unfair labor practices while opposing the unionization efforts of its employees.

Carlos Flores, president of Flores Labor Relations Inc., has worked as a subcontractor for LRI on a number of occasions.

In the published decision from the case, the board wrote “Though somewhat vague, and sometimes inconsistent, all witnesses testified essentially that Gus Flores described potential consequences of union representation as including stymied bargaining and strikes with resultant plant closure and or job loss, drawing on recent, widespread grocery store strikes as illustrative examples.”

The board found that Flores’ “dissuasive union discussions with union employees” in this case did not violate the the NLRA, but did demonstrate the company’s “keen desire to remain nonunion.”

“I was concerned that these meetings would be successful in intimidating some of our coworkers,” Laskonis told Urban Milwaukee. But, according to Laskonis, they’ve had the opposite effect.

The union has received “an influx of authorization cards since they started holding these meetings.” She said the union has more than the 30% of employees needed to trigger an NLRB election, but they’re going to wait until they have a larger majority of workers to “take the next step.”

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3 thoughts on “Did Colectivo Hire Union Busters?”

  1. says:

    Well, underneath their hipster carapace lies an old-fashioned Union-busting heart. Time to picket Colectivo stores! I’ll be out this weekend at my neighborhood store-with my own coffee! Solidarity with Colectivo workers!

  2. Patricia McMahon says:

    No Collectivo coffe breaks till after the pandemic surge and the anti-union tactics end!

    Richard Perry

  3. says:

    I agree. Sounds like union busting to me!

    A real organizing effort against the union busters and for Collectivo employees should be pulled together.
    Who’s in charge of the pro-union forces??

    Chris Christie
    Riverwest Votes

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