Colectivo challenges union’s election win

This article is a follow-up to a previous article on the Colectivo union, which can be found here.

Nearly a year after Colectivo Coffee employees filed to form a union in 2021, the union has still not officially been recognized by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) due to outstanding objections by Colectivo Coffee over the validity of the election. 

In March of 2021, Colectivo employees engaged in a mail-in voting process. After an initial counting of ballots in April, the election remained tied: 99 employees voted to form the union and 99 voted against. 16 additional ballots were challenged, the majority by Colectivo management, and seven of these were opened on Aug. 23, 2021, all of which went to the union, changing the election results to 106-99 in favor of unionization. After these challenged ballots were ruled on, Colectivo Coffee prepared another round of objections to the results of the election, which were dismissed in a later decision from the Regional Director of the NLRB on Dec. 17, 2021. On Jan. 4, 2022, Colectivo requested that the Regional Director review their decision on these objections, again challenging the results of the election, an action that pro-union employees see as delay tactics.

“We are working to get to the bargaining table, to sit down with Colectivo, and work out what will be in our collective bargaining agreement,” said Ida Lucchesi, Humboldt café shift leader and union organizer, in an email to Ripples. “Since our election in April 2021, we have faced multiple stall tactics from the company, meaning the process is moving much more slowly than necessary. Colectivo is working to discourage and tire out the workforce.”

The company’s continued objections have been the source of public scrutiny from employees, local officials and community members. On Jan. 12, union organizers, along with acting Milwaukee mayor Cavalier Johnson and local labor leaders, participated in a rally at Colectivo’s Humboldt headquarters. After listening to various speakers, they attempted to present to Colectivo management a petition of over two thousand community members and employee signatures indicating their support for the union’s formation. 

“As a unit, we decided we needed public action to let the company know that what they are doing is unacceptable,” Lucchesi said. “When we went to deliver the petition, the owners were not available to receive it from us. They’ve said time and time again that their doors are always open, but when 2,000+ people had a message for them, it seems they were too busy to hear it.”

As a unit, we decided we needed public action to let the company know that what they are doing is unacceptable.

— Ida Lucchesi, Humboldt café shift leader

Colectivo’s challenges to the final vote count include accusations that employees at Chicago’s Logan Square location engaged in ballot solicitation, in that the employees may have coordinated and filled out their ballots together before mailing their ballots as a group. This claim was dismissed by the Regional Director of the NLRB in their Dec. 17 decision.

Additionally, Colectivo contests that an unattended ballot that was found at the Humboldt location could have been tampered with and should be discounted. This was sustained by the Regional Director, given evidence that another cafe worker touched the ballot, but in their decision, the director pointed out that this would neither change the result of the election nor provide evidence for the entire election process to be overturned.

While many union activists and labor leaders see these objections simply as stall tactics, Colectivo argues that they are necessary to ensure the validity of the election.

“The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is still reviewing the voting process conducted in this case, and therefore the process of unionizing is not yet complete for Colectivo,” Colectivo ownership said in a statement to Ripples. “We want to ensure that any third party representation of our employees is an accurate reflection of the collective voices of our current 500+ co-workers.”

Aside from Colectivo employees, community members have also been vocal on this issue. Sam Harshner, Milwaukee Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) organizer, is involved with the Marquette Academic Workers Union and has been an active labor organizer in Milwaukee.

“Once you start doing labor organizing, what you realize is we’re all in this together. We’re all facing similar struggles and that when we support each other, across sectors and across businesses, we’re stronger,” Harshner said. “We’ve had the support of Colectivo workers in our struggle at Marquette… [so] I’m very excited to help them out, to return that favor.”

Once you start doing labor organizing, what you realize is we’re all in this together.

— Sam Harshner, Milwaukee DSA organizer

Before winter break, Harshner spoke to members of Shorewood’s Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) about labor rights issues across the city of Milwaukee. To take direct action, Milwaukee DSA and YDSA organized an event in solidarity with Colectivo employees, specifically those at Colectivo’s Shorewood location. The group posted flyers all along Oakland Ave. and in SHS, talked to Colectivo customers on the morning of Jan. 15 and tipped Colectivo employees, making sure to tell them they supported the formation of the union. The flyers posted by YDSA were later removed from both Oakland Ave. and SHS.

The Shorewood protestors aimed to encourage community members to reach out to Colectivo’s owners, and make sure customers were informed of the company’s actions. The sign that they posted all across Oakland directed community members to send an auto-filled email to Colectivo ownership backing their employee’s unionization efforts. 

“We want to help the workers, that’s one of our main goals as socialists,” said Bobby Gronert, sophomore and chapter secretary of Shorewood’s YDSA. “You might have heard the phrase ‘workers of the world unite’ — that’s a socialist slogan and that’s what we want to do.”

“I think [DSA is] committed to supporting labor throughout the city because we feel like a strong labor movement is essential to maintaining our democracy [and] a more just society. So, philosophically, we are going to be in support,” Harshner said. “I truly want the management of Colectivo to realize that it’s in their best interest to accept this union and to go forward as partners with their workers.”

Members of the Milwaukee DSA and Shorewood YDSA gather in front of the Colectivo Shorewood café on Jan. 15 to call for the withdrawal of Colectivo’s objections to the 2021 union election. (Maggie Dickman)

The continued unionization process has caused pro-union employees and activists to debate over whether Colectivo ownership can be trusted to stand by their progressive branding, such as their pride month specials, Black history month deals and ethical sourcing of their coffee beans.

“It feels like the decisions they make are always based on profits, without regard for how they affect the people doing the work to make those profits,” Lucchesi said. “Colectivo has branded itself really well as a progressive company, but lately, the company’s actions aren’t supporting that image.” 

Gronert and Lucchesi both encourage customers of Colectivo Coffee to offer their support to the unionization efforts when interacting with Colectivo employees.

“If you are going to buy coffee [at Colectivo], make sure to give the employees a nice tip and make sure to tell them you support unionization,” Gronert said.

“Anytime I’m working on the register in the cafe and a customer tells me they are following our union campaign, I instantly feel warm and supported,” Lucchesi said. “Knowing there are people outside of the company that see us and see our work as valuable and necessary reinvigorates me to keep pushing. Sparking the conversation is a great way to let workers know they are not alone and that they deserve a healthier workplace environment.”

Despite the public pressure from local activists, Colectivo ownership has assured customers that service will not be affected, and that they will enter into negotiations when the NLRB certifies the election.

“Upon official certification of the vote by the NLRB, we will enter into the bargaining process in good faith. We have been and always will be committed to the success of our co-workers and bringing an exceptional experience to our customers,” Colectivo ownership said in the statement.

Knowing there are people outside of the company that see us and see our work as valuable and necessary reinvigorates me to keep pushing.

— Ida Lucchesi, Humboldt café shift leader

While it is still unclear when the NLRB will certify the union’s election, it is likely that they ultimately will, and the union will be certified, making Colectivo the largest unionized cafe chain in the country. Colectivo’s potential unionization comes amidst a push for increased unionization in the service industry.

“It’s inspiring to see so many other unionization efforts across the country right now, especially in the service industry. It is an industry that’s been neglected for so long, that it’s become normal to accept abuse within the workplace. Seeing all these people across the country connect with each other to demand better treatment and communication from their employers is incredible,” Lucchesi said. “Seeing the Buffalo Starbucks campaign progress has hit home in so many ways. To see them face some of the same union-busting efforts that we experienced and still push forward gave me hope for our campaign and the other new campaigns we see pop up nearly every day.”