The decision this week to allow more than 300 baristas, bakers and other Colectivo Coffee employees to unionize could influence restaurant workers across the state.
Employees at the Milwaukee-based coffeehouse chain are set to become the nation’s largest unionized coffeehouse workforce following a year-long battle between management and organizers.
The National Labor Relations Council announced Monday that pro-union workers could join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers with a vote of 106 to 99.
Colectivo operates a roasting facility in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee and cafes in the Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago areas.
One of Colectivo’s employees who began organizing efforts in July 2020 said in an interview with WPR on Tuesday that the biggest obstacle in the fight was figuring out which union to partner with.
The organizer, who did not wish to be named for fear of reprisals from the management of Colectivo, believes that this victory will inspire other employees of the restaurant.
“The biggest obstacle is to think that it cannot be done,” said the organizer. “I think once you see that it can be done, especially at the scale we just did, it’s an easy conversation started on the jobsite. Saying ‘Oh my God, have you seen Colectivo just get organized “and then relate what we” do to their specific situation. ‘”
Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of the AFL-CIO of Wisconsin, called the victory of Colectivo and the IBEW “a major game changer”.
“This is a bold example and a brilliant inspiration to other workers in cafes, restaurants and workers in general,” Bloomingdale said. “What that says is we can do it. If people stick together, it’s the best way to build power in the workplace.”
Representatives of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But Omar Sheikh, owner of Carnevor steakhouse in Milwaukee, said the industry has suffered tremendously over the past 18 months and that there are still many factors that make it difficult for restaurants to advance, including finding a workforce. work and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Sheikh, who is also opening a food hall in downtown Milwaukee, said that if a union would help attract long-term employees it could be an attractive prospect for him, but he is also afraid of the unknown consequences. a union could result.
Joe Muench is the co-owner and chef of Black Shoe Hospitality, which has four restaurants in the Milwaukee area and employs approximately 150 people. He said he understands why some large organizations decide to unionize. But said if his employees formed a union it would be bad for business.
“There have been attempts to get unions to come in (Milwaukee), certainly in the hospitality industry, you hear about it,” Muench said. “With the dynamic state of restaurants right now and the way we have to adapt to new (public health) mandates almost on a daily basis… for us as a company, we want the best people possible. “
Muench said if all restaurant workers formed unions, the costs would be reflected in price increases for customers.
“If you set up a universal hospitality union, everyone from McDonalds to KwikTrip to a Hilton hotel or upscale restaurant would have benefits, a union doesn’t pay for it,” said Muench. “It should come from the public.”
The owners of Colectivo did not respond to requests for comment. In an “open letter to customers” posted on the company’s website on Monday, owners said less than a third of eligible workers supported the union and the National Labor Relations Board had counted people’s votes. who had already resigned.
“It is our best guess that less than 100 of our 440 current colleagues voted for this union,” the letter reads. “We will of course play by the rules and negotiate in good faith.”
The union organizer said that in November 2019, employees working at Colectivo’s warehouse in Milwaukee were not receiving performance reviews, effectively preventing them from getting raises. The workers started talking about organizing.
“Then the pandemic struck,” said the organizer. “During that time, most of our warehouse had no (personal protective equipment) or policies with COVID, and it became very clear that we needed a union.”
The organizer said that despite the long fight, they hope to continue working at Colectivo and that the relationship between management and employees will improve.
“It’s a great time for the organizers and the company to put aside all the differences we have and understand that we have to come together to write this contract,” said the organizer. “Colectivo, being a progressive company, if they are really willing to come together, very good things can happen.”