Graham Kilmer

Colectivo Workers Win Union Election

After a tie in March, final ballots tip election in union's favor. But negotiations could be tough.

By - Aug 23rd, 2021 07:53 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.

Employees at Colectivo Coffee working to organize a union just won their election, certifying the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 494 as their official bargaining representative.

Workers at the Milwaukee-based coffee chain have been organizing with the local 494 since mid-2020.

In March 2021, a National Labor Review Board (NLRB) election was held. The outcome was a tie, 99 to 99. But during the count, Colectivo filed challenges to seven ballots that were withheld from the tie-vote. Eventually, the NLRB ruled that the ballots would be opened and counted. Monday, the ballots were opened and it was announced that the union came out ahead.

On Facebook, the Colectivo union said, “With today’s results, Colectivo becomes the largest Unionized Café in the country, a record we hope to hold onto for only a short period of time!”

The unionization effort was aimed at organizing a company-wide union that included workers at cafes in Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago, as well as the roastery in Riverwest.

Employees supporting unionization told Urban Milwaukee early on that they wanted to gain better working conditions and more input into operations of the company, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The owners of Colectivo opposed the unionization from the start. In August, shortly after the campaign became public, the owners sent a letter to employees stating their staunch opposition to a union at Colectivo. Later, they hired expensive consultants that specialize in “union avoidance,” to meet with their employees.

Monday, after the final ballots were counted, the owners, Lincoln Fowler, Ward Fowler and Paul Miller, along with CEO Dan Hurdle, released an open letter to Colectivo customers saying, “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.”

Under the law, the union wins if it gets a majority of the votes counted. Colectivo has more than 400 employees, according to the owners, but just over 100 employee ballots voted for the union election. “We will, of course, respect the rules and bargain in good faith,” the owners letter said, but the letter also claimed that less than 100 of their current employees voted for the union. 

The next step for the union will be to elect a bargaining committee that will negotiate a labor contract with management. But with little more than a quarter of employees voting for the union, that could be a challenge.

One knowledgeable observer, who supports the Colectivo workers’ unionization efforts, said this dynamic will favor management in negotiations, making it more difficult to secure a first contract.

Winning the union certification is different from winning a contract, the source said, and with less than one-third of current employees supporting the union, that isn’t enough to “run a real strike.”

“Winning an NLRB certification and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee,” the observer said, “although maybe not at Colectivo.”

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Categories: Business, Economics

One thought on “Colectivo Workers Win Union Election”

  1. GodzillakingMKE says:

    Good for the workers. The owners are asshats.

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