Workers at Colectivo Coffee’s Chicago cafes have begun unionizing efforts in response to safety and communication concerns. Workers have demands that will sound familiar to industry observers: They want mandated coronavirus testing for employees and more formalized channels to raise issues with ownership. In response, the company sent out letters bashing unions, and hired a Oklahoma-based “union avoidance” company.
Meanwhile on Thursday, Colectivo ownership announced the company will close two Wisconsin cafes on November 1 and a planned Chicago Troubadour Bakery in West Town is permanently canceled due to financial loses from the pandemic. The project was put on hold in mid-March, according to a news release. Currently, drivers transport the pastries from Wisconsin to supply the Chicago cafes. Other downsizing efforts include the termination of a worker who helped organizing efforts.
Colectivo, based in Milwaukee, arrived in Chicago after opening in 2017 in Lincoln Park. The company boasts around 500 employees between cafes, corporate, and production staff in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison, Wisconsin. The majority of workers in cafe, production, warehouse, roasting, and bakery departments would be eligible for union representation, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Twenty Chicago workers have signed union cards so far out of about 50 eligible employees, according to former Andersonville cafe employee Zoe Muellner, who was terminated on Friday. The employees have turned to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for guidance. They work at cafes in Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Logan Square, Andersonville, and suburban Evanston, and have created an Instagram account, @colectivocollective. Workers first began discussing the possibility of unionization in the spring, and formed a group of volunteer organizers in August. IBEW says they’re filing a grievance on Muellner’s behalf, claiming Colectivo targeted her due to her involvement on the union organizing committee.
Shortly after news of the Colectivo workers’ intentions to organize became public knowledge, employees received an anti-union letter from company owners Lincoln Fowler, Ward Fowler, and Paul Miller. A second letter from ownership followed, echoing the prior statement’s contention that the “free and open communication that is a hallmark of Colectivo would suffer [with a union]” and that “fun, camaraderie, and flexibility in our jobs — yours, ours, everyone that we work with — would be replaced by contracts and boundary lines.”
Worker concerns include gaps in communication between the staff and ownership, but efforts to keep customers and employees safe from COVID-19 are especially pressing, says Muellner. She wants the company to mandate employee coronavirus testing, as she says testing is currently optional and those waiting for a result can choose to stay home or come in to work.
Colectivo reps have not responded to a request for more information but the website lists health and safety policies, stating that management is “asking” employees to stay home if they are sick, that staff temperatures are taken prior to the start of a shift, and those with a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher will be sent home. The policies also note that if an employee tests positive for the virus, colleagues who were in direct contact with them have the option to continue working, as long as they don’t have any symptoms. In Muellner’s view, these precautions do little to protect employees and customers.
“If someone is positive, it not being a requirement to get tested means an outbreak could happen without being traceable,” she says. “Someone might have it with mild or no symptoms. There are a lot of pitfalls with that system — not just for us, but for the general public.”
Other local restaurant leaders have also been criticized for their handling of worker health and safety during the pandemic: management at Bucktown restaurant Etta was chided by employees and the public for keeping the restaurant open after multiple employees tested positive for COVID-19. In early August, frustrated employees at Pacific Standard Time in River North begged ownership for guidance on how to handle customers who refused to wear masks, became aggressive, and even grabbed and tried to cough on restaurant employees.
Colectivo’s owners have hired Labor Relations Institute, Inc., which sells tools like “union avoidance videos” to try and dissuade workers from organizing, local news blog Urban Milwaukee reported. “We literally wrote the book in countering union organizing campaigns,” the company’s website reads. Muellner and others involved with unionization at Colectivo have referred to LRI as a union buster.
In an apparent response to the protests sweeping across the country, the company created a coffee blend called “Unity,” which to some workers bore an uncomfortable resemblance to “all lives matter.” Employees were pleased to learn that all proceeds from the coffee go to the NAACP. The civil rights organization has also trained Colectivo employees to register voters at all cafe locations.
Hospitality workers in Chicago and across the country have in recent years begun demanding more from their employers and government officials. In July, groups including Chicago Restaurant Workers, Restaurant Workers United, and Restaurant Organizing Project coordinated protests in several states, including Illinois. The were calling for the federal government to extend the July 31 end date on weekly $600 checks to help unemployed people survive during the pandemic.