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Intelligentsia Coffee’s Chicago Cafe Workers Vote to Unionize

Chicago’s coffee giant joins Colectivo in the pro-labor push

A coffee bar and shop with a modern, geometric design, many hanging lamps, and a bright red espresso machine.
Pro-union workers at Intelligentsia Coffee began organizing in fall 2021.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Workers at Intelligentsia Coffee five Chicago cafes voted to unionize, becoming the latest caffeine mongers to join the pro-labor push.

Pro-union retail workers at Intelligentsia sailed to victory Monday in a union election that allows employees to join Local 1220 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). This election outcome marks IBEW’s second successful organizing campaign in Chicago’s coffee industry, occurring just short of a year after its win at Colectivo Coffee, the Wisconsin chain with five Chicago-area locations. It also falls amidst an ongoing wave of contentious union elections at Starbucks cafes locally and elsewhere in the U.S.

The final vote tally at Intelligentsia was 9-1 in favor of unionization.

“I hope the message [this election] sends to leadership is that there are a lot of people here who really care about Intelligentsia and want to make it a place they can stay and work for a very long time,” says barista Jordan Parshall, who stayed involved in organizing from the early stages. “Everyone I know who voted yes has such a passionate love for coffee and what we do here, and we think this will only make it better.”

Intelligentsia’s union bargaining unit will actually include 27 workers, but a snafu over outdated mailing addresses meant that some employees didn’t get their ballots in time to vote, according to Parshall.

Intelligentsia wasn’t reached for comment, but President and CEO James McLaughin announced the vote tally to employees in a Monday email. “Some Intellis may be pleased and others disappointed with this outcome,” he writes in part. “Please continue treating each other respectfully regardless of your position on the union... Thank you for all that you do to change the way the world understands and appreciates coffee.”

Volunteer organizers at the company had originally intended to seek union representation for both retail and warehouse workers at the company’s Chicago Roasting Works in the West Loop. A challenge from Intelligentsia management prompted IBEW’s legal team to negotiate a four-month pause on plans to explore organizing at the warehouses. “IBEW will continue to seek to become the sole collective bargaining agent for these employees in a future campaign,” reps write in a Monday news release.

A minimalist coffee shop with a large wall sign that reads “Intelligentsia.”
Intelligentsia opened its original cafe in 1995 in Lakeview.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

In contrast to the long and bitter battle between management and pro-union employees at Colectivo, Intelligentsia’s election process seems to have moved relatively swiftly and smoothly. Like many of their counterparts at other organized coffee chains, Intelligentsia workers had concerns about wages, training, staffing, and scheduling, and in October 2021 began to discuss a possible union drive. Volunteer organizers submitted a petition for union elections in late May and ballots were distributed in early July.

Founded in 1995, Intelligentsia is seen by many as a key pillar of Chicago’s vibrant coffee industry. One of the so-called “big three” Third-Wave Coffee companies (alongside Portland’s Stumptown and Durham, North Carolina’s Counter Culture), the company has expanded beyond its original Lakeview cafe to two additional locations in the Loop, as well as outposts in Wicker Park and Logan Square. An Old Town location recently closed when the Plum Market grocery store shuttered its sole Chicago location on Wells Street. California-based coffee giant Peet’s Coffee & Tea acquired a majority stake in Intelligentsia in 2015 just weeks after purchasing Stumptown.

It remains unclear whether or not Intelligentsia leadership hired a “union avoidance” company or consultant (critiqued as union busters) to try and stamp out organizing efforts, such as was the case with Colectivo. Intelligentsia’s management did, however, express opposition to the drive, first in a May letter from McLaughin and later in a mandatory June meeting where the entire management team read statements explaining that they didn’t support unionization, Parshall says. Management also distributed a flier questioning IBEW’s diversity, asking workers if the union would give up company established Juneteenth and MLK Day holidays.

Now that the votes are counted and the work of contract negotiations begins, Parshall says he and his colleagues want to make sure that any barista — in Chicago or across the country — knows they can embark on a similar path. “If they want to unionize their shop, they can do that,” he says. “Call a union, call IBEW, call Starbucks Workers United, call whoever you need to call to get that process started.”

Intelligentsia Coffee

53 E Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60601 312 920 9332