Colectivo Coffee workers pass union vote

After a year of battling over unionization efforts, Colectivo Coffee employees passed their vote to unionize with a 106-99 vote. While the results are yet to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) due to existing objections by Colectivo Coffee, they are set to become the largest unionized coffee chain in the United States.

In March 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, company employees began official internal conversations in the hopes of unionizing their workforce. While many businesses were shutting their doors, Colectivo’s remained open. In response, employees across multiple locations started a petition to protect workers from COVID-19, and encourage paid time off.

“So many people had to work because they needed the paycheck or their health insurance,” said Hillary Laskonis, Humboldt café barista and original member of the Volunteer Organizing Committee. “When you do that and are working at such great personal risk and are not being listened to… I think it highlights the preexisting problems.” 

There have been discussions surrounding unionization ever since Laskonis was hired at Colectivo almost four years ago. The pandemic, however, created a larger need for employee protections that a union could potentially provide. Because of this, the Volunteer Organizing Committee started discussions with various unions in the region. Ultimately, they decided to be represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) since the organization could represent all employees (barista, warehouse, bakery, etc.) across three cities. 

“My dad is in the IBEW so I was hesitant [to] ask for us to get a meeting until I brought it up [with] the group, and they said we could use as many meetings with organizations as we could get, so we could know who would be most suited for our bargaining unit,” Laskonis said. “People voted for the IBEW because they had the infrastructure to handle a bargaining unit of our size.”

When you do that and are working at such great personal risk and are not being listened to… I think it highlights the preexisting problems.

— Hillary Laskonis, Humboldt Café barista

With about 700,000 international workers and 2,700 local, the IBEW represents a wide range of employees: construction workers, electricians, motor repair workers, industrial repair personnel, and more. Dean Warsh, business manager of IBEW Local 494, Milwaukee’s chapter, feels the organization has the resources necessary to support Colectivo employees in their negotiations.

“Currently we help negotiate 18 different agreements. Our strongest asset is our network consisting of the IBEW, the building trades, Milwaukee/Waukesha Area Labor Councils, and the AFL-CIO (statewide/nationally)… The IBEW has been in existence since 1891 and with that comes a wealth of information and resources to prepare for this,” Warsh said in an email to Ripples.

The IBEW filed charges for workers about unfair labor practices, alleging a history of disciplinary action, retaliation, and coercive practices towards pro-union Colectivo employees. As of September 16, there have been 10 charges against Colectivo. While many of the details of these charges are not public, four have been dismissed for lack of evidence, two have been withdrawn by the charging party and four currently remain open.

“We filed unfair labor practices, or ULPs, and we have several filed that are awaiting decision,” Laskonis said. “Those cases are not only about when the employee was terminated, but also situations where the company has made decisions that made employment no longer viable. For example, cutting hours to the point where the wages weren’t survivable.”

While complaints were building up against Colectivo, employees decided to officially begin petitioning for an election. To file for an election with the NLRB, Colectivo employees needed to provide signed union authorization cards from 30% of eligible voters. After this threshold was reached and the election rules were set by the Stipulated Election Agreement, employees voted by mail from March 9 through March 30.

During this process, Colectivo used both internal and external assistance to try to dissuade workers from voting for the union. The company hired the Labor Relations Institute (LRI), a national organization that provides resources for companies to fight against unionization efforts. Colectivo also sent internal letters and videos to their employees outlining the reasons why they should vote against unionizing. Colectivo owners and CEO claimed that unions function as third party entities in organizations like theirs, and disrupt normal communication between management and employees.

“Unions are not a 3rd party entity,” Warsh said in the email. “We are all employees who have joined together to better our working conditions, safety, promote and protect members collective interest, and help protect all workers’ rights.”

Colectivo’s stance on the union was disappointing for involved employees like Laskonis.

“It is unfortunate that the company took such a combative stance, I think so many of us, myself included, applied at Colectivo because we thought it was a collective culture, and I really did not see them objecting to workers unionizing,” Laskonis said.

The Colectivo Collective, the employee-given name for the union, combated mandatory anti-union meetings by preparing employees for the rhetoric often expressed by employers who are against unionization of their employees. They participated in “inoculation training” and handed out a union busting bingo sheet from an IBEW pamphlet.

“The employees handled the meetings very well, questioning owners and LRI on their tactics,” Warsh said. “In fact, employees asked the question of LRI, ‘How come it is okay for you to sign a contract with the owners of Colectivo for the work you perform, but we shouldn’t?’” 

We are all employees who have joined together to better our working conditions, safety, promote and protect members collective interest and help protect all workers’ rights.

— Dean Warsh, IBEW Local 494 Business Manager

After the ballots were opened on April 6, the results were a tie: 99-99, with 16 unopened challenged ballots. 13 of the 16 challenged ballots were challenged by Colectivo. Of these, the vast majority were challenged because the employee in question was either terminated or resigned over the course of the election.

Of the 13 ballots challenged by Colectivo, seven were ultimately opened, all of which were ‘yes’ votes for the union, making the final tally 106-99. Colectivo management declined an interview with Ripples about the results of the election, and instead referred to a statement posted to their website on August 23. In it, Colectivo owners and CEO assert that they were disappointed in the results of the election.

“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,” Colectivo said in the statement. “We don’t think those former coworkers should have been allowed to have a voice in unionization at an organization where they did not intend to work.”

In order for an employee’s vote to be counted, they must be employed or temporarily laid-off before the payroll cut-off date (February 21, as set by the Stipulated Election Agreement) and remain employed at the time that they mail-in their vote. Based on NLRB precedent, there is no legal distinction between employees who remain employed after casting their ballot and those who leave Colectivo shortly after — all their votes still count.

As of September 16, the NLRB had not publicly acknowledged whether Colectivo had withdrawn their remaining objections to the certification of the election or if the NLRB Regional Director had made a determination regarding the merit or lack of merit of those objections. Though the objections will eventually be ruled on, the union still holds a presumptive victory. Until the objections are officially resolved, however, the union can not officially form. Warsh believes this is part of Colectivo’s strategy.

“The local NLRB will be holding a hearing at the end of September regarding the 3 objections the company had filed,” Warsh said. “Should the NLRB find in favor of the employees, the company will most likely appeal to the national NLRB in D.C. This will push everything back another 3 or 4 months again. This is a typical tactic used by companies, they want to delay the final results in hope the employees lose interest.”

Despite their existing objections, the company has acknowledged the union’s likely certification, and claims that they will negotiate with the union as mandated by federal law.

“At final count, less than one third of the eligible co-workers supported the union, and as of today, it is our best estimate that fewer than 100 of our current 440 co-workers voted for this union,” Colectivo said in the statement. “We will, of course, respect the rules and bargain in good faith.”

Hopefully going forward [from] the pandemic people will see that this is something they can do because they saw Colectivo organize.

— Hillary Laskonis, Humboldt Café barista

The Colectivo Collective remains hopeful that despite the outstanding legal objections by Colectivo, the union will soon gain a seat at the table and the opportunity to conduct surveying of employee needs, and ultimately creating a new contract. They hope to inspire other workers in attempts to unionize past the pandemic.

“The company has submitted, I believe, three objections to the election, and they could at this point withdraw those, and they still haven’t so it is a little concerning that they may be continuing to obstruct, but they say that they’ll bargain in good faith and we hope that’s the case,” Laskonis said. “Hopefully going forward [from] the pandemic people will see that this is something they can do because they saw Colectivo organize. I’m really trying to wrap my head around the impact this has made around the coffee industry regionally and even around the country. It’s crazy.”

As this story is still developing, it is hard to say how Colectivo will change after the union’s imminent formation. While its internal affairs may significantly alter, Colectivo has assured customers that service will continue at the usual caliber.

“We will not allow this to change the remarkable Colectivo experience for our customers,” Colectivo said in the statement. “We will remain intensely focused on our customers and the generous and responsible approach we’ve always taken as employers will remain unchanged.”