In March, workers at Colectivo Coffee, a Wisconsin-based roaster and cafe chain with five locations in Chicago, cast their ballots on unionization. The result, which came in early April, wasn’t what union organizers had hoped for: The vote ended in a tie, but with a number of challenged ballots. The effort’s not dead yet, as workers and management will have a chance to argue whether to include or exclude those ballots at a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing, which could take place in the next few months.
More than a year has passed since Colectivo employees began efforts to unionize their workplace. Spurred in large part by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have called for changes including enhanced coronavirus safety protocols, consistent schedules, and formalized communication channels with management.
The fight has been a tumultuous one, as the chain’s co-founders and CEO hired the Oklahoma-based Labor Relations Institute (LRI), a “union avoidance” company — known to critics as union busters — to quash employees’ efforts to form what would be the largest unionized workforce at a coffee chain in the U.S.
Periodic waves of unexpected firings, mandatory meetings with anti-union speakers, and schedules changing rapidly with little notice have decimated morale in recent months. “Any time you were pulled into a meeting or got an email that said you did something wrong, you’re in constant fear of losing your job,” says Kait Dessoffy, a shift leader in the Andersonville cafe who is also a volunteer organizer. “It was an intensely stressful time to be organizing, and a really stressful time to be a low-wage worker in an industry where you have exposure to COVID.”
Colectivo partners Paul Miller and brothers Lincoln Fowler and Ward Fowler, as well as CEO Dan Hurdle, paid LRI during the pandemic to hold multiple mandatory meetings, ostensibly designed to provide employees with neutral information. Members of the organizing committee say they were banned from most of these gatherings. Those who did occasionally attend say LRI showed videos that focused solely on worst-case scenarios and allege it even perpetuated misinformation, such as a false claim that union authorization cards are legally binding and that once workers sign their card, they can’t get it back.
When reached by Eater for comment on allegations of exclusion from these meetings, Colectivo Director of Human Resources LaShonda Hill denies volunteer organizers were barred.
“Every Colectivo co-worker was invited to attend at least one of the sessions,” she writes in part. “We have said from the very beginning that Colectivo is not an anti-union company and is not against our co-workers’ right to unionize. It is important to us that this process be conducted fairly and in adherence to the law. This claim of being excluded from meetings is currently being reviewed as part of an NLRB filing and we expect it to be dismissed just as previous claims brought by the IBEW against Colectivo have been dismissed.”
In a March statement to Defector, the partners tried to reconcile their opposition to the union with the liberal politics the company often espouses. “We want to be clear that as people with progressive values, we are not against the right to organize, and we are not anti-union. However, we do believe very strongly that this union ... will not solve the challenges of this company and will not make our co-workers’ Colectivo experience better.”
Ownership declined to comment on the specifics of the union election, writing in a statement to Eater, “The NLRB conducted a vote count … and the union did not obtain a majority of votes necessary to move ahead with organizing. It is our understanding the NLRB will review a number of challenged ballots in the coming weeks.”
Colectivo opened its first cafe outside its home state in 2017 in Lincoln Park and has since opened outposts in Wicker Park, Logan Square, Andersonville, and suburban Evanston. The company has about 350 employees across more than a dozen locations in Illinois and Wisconsin. The brand has long been ubiquitous in Milwaukee and elsewhere in Wisconsin, first as Alterra Coffee Roasters before selling the name to manufacturing giant Mars, Inc. and rebranding as Colectivo in 2013. At the time, a company announcement explained the name change: “Why are we changing our name? Great question. We were and are committed to growing our organization and creating opportunity for all of us.”
Organizing efforts began in Milwaukee as warehouse employees sought the support of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) due to concerns over increasing workloads and stagnant hours. Other employees, who had watched with growing anxiety as management rapidly opened new locations without tending to repairs at preexisting cafes and implemented menu and policy changes unexpectedly, decided to follow suit, hoping they would be able to have a voice in the company.
Organizers say they were attracted to IBEW because the union could represent baristas, warehouse roasters, bakers, and delivery drivers, creating a more powerful collective voice. Union representation is rare in the service industry. The few exceptions are most often found among chain restaurant workers, such as fast-food employee coalition the Fight for $15, which has long supported a $15 per hour minimum wage and improved employee benefits.
Volunteer organizers had initially hoped the partners would remain neutral or even be receptive to the idea of working with a union. Instead, management began sending waves of anti-union emails — and later, talking head-style videos of owners delivering monologues to a camera — that claimed unionizing would undermine workplace relationships.
“Ward, Paul, Lincoln, and I fear that a union would have a profoundly negative impact on our company Culture [sic]. Camaraderie and respect would be replaced by workplace rules … a unionized work environment would change and undermine what’s so special about Colectivo — our close collaborative relationship with our co-workers,” Hurdle wrote in one the company’s many anti-union missives.
“They’ve really come out hard, but I think a lot of it is because this company feels very personal to them,” says Zoe Mullner, an organizer and former cafe employee. “Our livelihoods are also very personal — we need to support ourselves and feel safe at work, we need to know that things are going to be taken care of.”
In September, Mullner was terminated from her position as a cafe employee in Andersonville in a move that she and IBEW claim was retribution for becoming involved in the Colectivo union organizing committee. Firing a worker in retaliation for union organizing is a federal crime, though motivation is notoriously difficult to prove.
IBEW filed a grievance on Mullner’s behalf, but it was ultimately turned down by the NLRB. Still, Mullner says there may be some positive momentum in her case: Management said she’d be put on a call list when positions opened back up. She says she has yet to receive a call, despite hiring notices posted in every Chicago cafe. After the layoff, IBEW hired her to work part time on the Colectivo unionizing campaign — a gesture she says has been a lifesaver.
Mullner isn’t the only vocal union supporter who feels they were fired under suspicious circumstances. Multiple former workers described the tense and confusing final weeks of their employment at Colectivo, including Robert Penner, a specialized machine operator in a Milwaukee warehouse. A union advocate since 2019, Penner says the company asked him in the fall to work full time after a voluntary pandemic furlough, but he was then told he wasn’t needed before his first shift back. Baristas have reportedly been performing Penner’s duties since he formally left the company in October 2020, according to Defector.
Lauretta Archibald, a baker who worked at Colectivo for three years, told reporters that she noticed in March 2020 that management began treating her differently after she pushed back on LRI’s anti-union rhetoric. Tasked with job duties she wasn’t trained for and expected to dramatically increase her production rate under the same time restrictions, Archibald says she felt like she was being set up to fail. Sure enough, she was terminated in that same month, supposedly for taking a cigarette break.
When reached by Eater for comment on Mullner’s situation, Colectivo’s Hill writes in part, “Allegations that employees (including Zoe Muellner and Robert Penner) were unfairly terminated were investigated by the NLRB and dismissed as being without merit. I would add that we’re actively hiring in several markets based upon business needs and evaluating applications for new co-workers on a regular basis.”
Hill did not respond to a question about Archibald’s termination. The NLRB website lists nine complaints filed against Colectivo that include claims of coercive statements and actions, changes in terms and conditions of employment, discipline, and discharge. One of the cases is based in Chicago, and the three cases that remain open refer to employees in Milwaukee. Specific workers are not identified by name, but Mullner’s case does not appear to be included.
Meanwhile, working conditions in Chicago’s Colectivo locations have seen little improvement, says Dessoffy. Over the past few months, workers have rapidly transitioned from overstaffing that required them to fight for hours to chronic understaffing by the spring, resulting in exhausted employees regularly working double shifts. The company has not instituted the employee COVID-19 testing requirements that volunteer organizers have requested for nearly a year, or mandated that workers who were exposed to a COVID-positive colleague stay home, according to workers.
They also want the company to abide by an official policy to post schedules two weeks in advance — a timeline they say is rarely met. Employees need some notice of when they’ll be expected to work so they can arrange for basic necessities like child care, transportation, and medical appointments. Dessoffy has observed management rearranging schedules without notice multiple times over a handful of days, she says. She recalls a specific meeting that, for her, encapsulated the problem: “We were talking about respecting people’s time and schedules,” she says. “The meeting was scheduled two days before.”
When reached by Eater for comment on scheduling policies, Colectivo’s Hill writes in part, “Our standard practice is that managers post schedules two weeks in advance. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, things changed on a daily basis... While it is always our goal to give two weeks advance notice to any schedule changes, this was not always possible over the past year and we have asked for our co-workers patience and flexibility with changing scheduling needs.”
Increasingly frequent anti-union communications from the Fowlers, Miller, and Hurdle exacerbated the tension. In a video sent to Colectivo employees on January 11, Lincoln Fowler addressed the failed insurrection on January 6 at the U.S. Capitol, referencing a need for unity at Colectivo and the country at large. To organizers, it sounded like their bosses were drawing a parallel between unionization efforts and the politically charged violence seen in Washington, D.C.
They also felt targeted by an anti-union graphic management distributed to workers that identified volunteer organizers by cafe location, position, and full- or part-time status. Those who had quit or been laid off were marked off with a dramatic slash through their identifying details. “Is this the group that you trust to decide your future with Colectivo?” it read.
For Dessoffy, the graphic felt like a personal attack. “I was hit pretty hard when it first came out because I knew they were talking directly about me,” she says. “It was seemingly designed to pit the volunteer organizers against everybody else by painting us to be troublemakers and poor leaders … that we’re not as committed as everybody else.”
Large U.S. companies have recently made headlines over alleged union-busting tactics. Amazon, which has become known for its aggressive anti-union campaigns, in March deleted hundreds of thousands of entry-level warehouse workers’ profiles that were previously available to all company employees. That sparked speculation among corporate employees that management made the change to discourage potential union organizing.
It remains to be seen how the NLRB will handle the tied Colectivo vote, but Dessoffy, Mullner, and their colleagues remain hopeful. It’s not ideal, they say, but there is still a chance they’ll win. Either way, they have no regrets.
Colectivo has permanently shuttered three Wisconsin cafes and has temporarily closed two more since the pandemic began. All of the Chicago-area cafes have remained open throughout most of the pandemic, first with to-go offerings and recently for limited indoor dining. Chicago’s coffee scene has developed a reputation for maintaining high quality without the stereotypical pretension, and Colectivo’s large, laptop-friendly spaces and robust food and drink menus have earned it a sizable local following.
“I am looking at this as one massive learning experience,” Dessoffy says. “It’s rare for restaurants to unionize, and to even get to an election is pretty awesome…. Unionizing doesn’t mean we hate this company and want to bring it down. It means we want to make it better.”