Graham Kilmer

Colectivo Union Election Finishes

NLRB to tabulate results April 6th. Could create largest unionized coffee chain in U.S.

By - Mar 31st, 2021 12:50 pm
Colectivo Coffee, 2211 N. Prospect Ave. Photo taken June 3rd, 2015 by Michael Horne.

Colectivo Coffee, 2211 N. Prospect Ave. Photo taken June 3rd, 2015 by Michael Horne.

As a union election at Colectivo Coffee comes to end, so too does the campaign that began in earnest more than eight months ago.

For the past two weeks, the workers have been filling out and mailing their ballots for the election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Tuesday, March 30th was the final day that workers had to get their ballot to the NLRB regional office.

The union organizers first went public with their drive in August 2020 with the backing of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 494. They told Urban Milwaukee at the time that the job uncertainty and working conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic had pushed them over the edge in their decision to organize a union.

They had had enough of “little decisions being made at the top” with little regard for how they affected the day to day worker, explained one of the organizers, Hillary Laskonis, in August, and they decided they wanted a seat at the table.

For months they’ve attempted to organize the non-management employees of 18 cafes in three cities along with delivery drivers, coffee roasters and workers at the Colectivo-owned Troubadour Bakery. If successful, the effort would turn Colectivo into the largest unionized coffee chain in the nation, according to a story by In These Times. The story also reported that Colectivo has let workers go in retaliation for their support of the union. 

The pandemic has been a difficult time for the company, which has closed down several cafes as the decline in business ate into revenue. Recently, OnMilwaukee reported that the company’s Prospect Avenue location will reopen this summer, and the Pabst Theater Group has already announced shows for the venue there called The Back Room at Colectivo.

Colectivo was founded in Milwaukee in 1994 under the name Alterra by owners Lincoln Fowler, Ward Fowler and Paul Miller. The company has since expanded into Chicago and Madison.

Colectivo Union posters are attached to light poles in a number of locations in Riverwest. Photo taken March 30th, 2021 by Dave Reid.

Colectivo Union posters are attached to light poles in a number of locations in Riverwest. Photo by Dave Reid.

From the beginning the owners and management have opposed the union. Shortly after the organizers went public, they sent a letter to their employees explaining why “they strongly oppose the unionization efforts.”

By October the company started holding meetings between its employees and consultants that specialize in helping organizations avoid unions and, should a union election occur, to win it.

The consultants were contracted through a firm called the Labor Relations Institute, based in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. The firm boasts that it “literally wrote the book in countering union organizing campaigns.”

They cost hundreds of dollars an hour, and the company said they were there to inform employees of their rights. But union organizers accused the consultants of misleading, even lying to workers about unions and unionization.

The union organizers have maintained that the union will not cripple the business and organized a “reverse boycott” in November 2020 asking supporters to continue to patronize the company and order their coffee “IBEWstrong.” Supporters have continued this practice to the present. State Senator Chris Larson posted a picture on March 26th holding a Colectivo cup with “STRONG” written on the label.

In February, the organizers and IBEW 494 filed a petition for a union election with the NLRB. Organizers had repeatedly told Urban Milwaukee they would not seek an election until they had a solid majority of workers’ authorization cards returned. These cards grant a labor organization the authority to represent you, but federal labor law does not require your employer to recognize this authority — necessitating the union election.

Dean Warsh, business manager for IBEW 494, told Urban Milwaukee that the NLRB will count the ballots on April 6th. If the union prevails, the next steps will be to hold a meeting with all employees covered by the collective bargaining agreement and discuss what they want to ask the company for. Then, negotiations will ensue.

One thought on “Colectivo Union Election Finishes”

  1. GodzillakingMKE says:

    Good for the workers. If they make it union I’ll start going to Alterra again.

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