Intelligentsia's Chicago Workers Are Unionizing

Intelligentsia's Chicago Workers Are Unionizing

This bonus episode features Ravani Grace, an Intelligentsia barista who's helping to organize one of specialty coffee's most pivotal unions.

Hey folks—I’m back in your feed this week with a bonus podcast episode. Recently, I got to spend time with Ravani Grace, one of the baristas behind the Intelligentsia Coffee Workers Union in Chicago. Ravani and the baristas at five Chicago-based Intelligentsia stores announced their intent to unionize on May 27, 2022.

The baristas will be voting now—this week—so please show your support. Share this episode, and if you’re in Chicago, go to Intelligentsia and tell the baristas that you support them. This has the potential to be one of the most pivotal unions in the specialty coffee industry, so please keep your attention on this group. Here’s Ravani.

Photo by Kevin Loesch

Ashley: I was wondering if you could start by introducing yourself for listeners.

Ravani: Yeah. Hi, my name is Ravani Grace. I use she/her pronouns. I have been a barista with Intelligentsia for a while now, and am a career barista. I have been doing this since I was 20 years old—and don't plan on stopping anytime soon.

Ashley: I love that you started with “you’re a career barista” because something that comes up a lot in union rhetoric is that these are transient jobs, or these are jobs with lots of turnover.

I think it's important to highlight that folks like you—and a lot of the folks that are organizing unions within coffee shops—are people who love coffee and wanna stay with it for a time.

Ravani: Obviously I think about like switching careers because of all of that rhetoric around, like, “This is a temporary gig, this isn't something that is sustainable.” But honestly, I think about doing something else and I cringe. I like making coffee. I like talking to customers all day.

Ashley: How did you start working at Intelligentsia?

Ravani: I was bouncing around shops a lot in the summer of 2018. I went through three different coffee shops in three months, just because I kept running into really horrible working conditions. You know, the kinds of working conditions that really are like the norm in service, and I was like, “I need a new job, Intelli is hiring. This is as good as it gets in terms as coffee jobs go, I'm gonna apply,” and I managed to get it.

Then I’ve been with the company on and off since then. I've left Chicago a couple of times. Whenever I left Chicago, obviously I stopped working at Intelli, and whenever I came back to the city, I was like, “Let me get this job again.”

Ashley: So let's walk through the timeline of union organizing. Obviously, we're here because Intelligentsia announced about a month and a half ago that its five Chicago-based locations are intending to unionize. They had a press release [stating] they're organizing with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which we're gonna refer to as the IBEW throughout this conversation.

So, if you announced about, let's say a month and a half ago, how long had you folks been talking and planning or even thinking about unionizing?

Ravani: We've been thinking about unionizing since 2018. I think things got really serious in 2021, like the back end of 2021, the start of 2022. People really started doing the work of getting organized. There were always whisperings of a union for as long as I've been at Intelli, but we took the step from like talking about it, getting drinks together and saying, “Man, we should organize,” to actually being organized and getting organized—I would say like a year-ish ago.

It's definitely been a long process. I think like the thing that really changed the game for us was getting in touch with the IBEW and having people who really know how to organize workers, who know how to do all of the legal work, who can teach you how to have the kinds of conversations that are necessary to create real worker solidarity, which is like the foundation of any union, right?

Ashley: I think what's really crucial in the answer that you just gave is that talking to the IBEW was almost like a switch for you folks. And it wasn't necessarily that you folks needed to do anything special, or that getting in touch with the IBEW was jumping through any hoops or anything like that.

It seems like it was simply reaching out to an organization that's a really well-established union and saying, “Hey, we're interested in this. Can you help us?”

And them saying yes.

Ravani: It really was that simple. It was Jordan who sent a couple of emails. They started organizing meetings. And then we did the work of having the conversations on the shop floor, of visiting the shops, being like, “Hey, do you wanna come to this Monday meeting the IBEW is hosting?”

They organized a couple of really big in-person meetings for us at various union halls, and those were really successful events that helped get my fellow workers on board with the idea of a union and really demystified the process for [them].

Ashley: Right. Yeah—“demystifies” is a really good word there, because I have to imagine for a lot of people who see you folks organizing, or see other coffee shops organizing, some of the hesitation to maybe take that step for themselves is that they don't know what the next step is. But I love that you were able to draw like a direct line between “we reached out to the IBEW” and “they started helping us.”

Ravani: Yeah. It really is that simple. I think doing a fair amount of research on like, what are the local unions that are really active in your area, right? The unions that like, align with your values, because not every union is made equal. We're really lucky to have had the IBEW here in Chicago.

They are really in line with, I think, Intelligentsia—like the Intelli workers’ values. And they're a really proactive union that are willing to give us a lot of support.

Ashley: What was it about the IBEW—just to extrapolate a little bit on that answer—that made you folks decide, “Yes, these are the people that we wanna work with.” What were some of those shared values?

Ravani: One of the really big ones was a history of anti-capitalism, right? As workers at Intelligentsia, we're organizing for ourselves, we're organizing to get a better paycheck, we're organizing to get more vacation days, to get better healthcare for all of the basic things for ourselves, but also we're organizing because food service needs to be organized in a broader sense.

And I think the IBEW really connected our struggle to a broader struggle. What really drew us to them was their work in the Colectivo unionization campaign. We really liked what we saw them do with Colectivo and reached out to them largely because of that.

Ashley: Was it ever a decision in your mind to not organize as all five stores together? Or was it always like, “We're all organizing together. We're all in this together.”

Ravani: I think certain models of unionization really are shop by shop.

Ashley: Right, right.

Ravani: That's what we've seen from Starbucks. And I think there was a point at which we were like, “Well, this is how it's done. This is what we should do.”

But we realized that it wasn't gonna work for us in our particular situation. We needed everyone or it was gonna fall apart, because our shops are really small. It's like, four or five workers per shop, and you don't really have that solidarity, that strength in numbers when you're organizing four or five workers at a time. Because we're a smaller outfit, it was easier to get everyone from every store involved.

Ashley: Those meetings that the IBEW held—what were those like? What did you folks learn in those meetings?

Ravani: They were just like little Zoom meetings. Frequently they'd be really small because a lot of us were working during them, or like half of the staff would be working during them, or we'd just be getting off work and we'd be tired.

They were really intimate meetings in which we just sort of talked strategy for the most part, or people would come and they would have questions about the union. Like, “What is the bargaining process gonna look like? What is the next step? What is our timeline?”

And the IBEW was able to give that information and say, “This is what we're looking at. This is what to look out for from management. This is what the bargaining process might turn out to be.”

Ashley: So it seems like they did a lot of work to make sure that you folks felt very informed?

Ravani: Yeah, absolutely. It was a situation where really, if you wanted to learn about the union, it was really easy and accessible. You hop on the email list and you're getting an email once every couple of weeks keeping you updated on where exactly we are in the process. Yeah, that was one of their main roles.

Ashley: It seems like information is so powerful in these situations because, from what I've gathered interviewing people who have unionized or thinking about unionizing, it seems like a lack of information and a lack of clarity on what laws protect you, what laws don't protect you, is a big hindrance to moving forward.

But it seems, from what I've gleaned from the outside looking in, you folks are highly informed and highly organized. I remember when you folks dropped the press release that you were unionizing, I was like, “Whoa, this came out of nowhere, but this is highly organized. This is something that these folks are ready for.”

Ravani: Yeah, absolutely. I have been a part of various attempts at worker organization at, frankly, every coffee shop that I've ever worked at, because of the type of person I am, you know: If there wasn't union chatter before I showed up, there definitely was after.

But coming back to Intelli at this time, and I remember within the first hour of my first shift back, Jordan was like, “So we're starting a union.”

My first reaction was like, “Okay, that's cute. But, let's be real here. Are you actually gonna start a union?” And it very quickly was apparent to me that, no, actually this was real and this was gonna happen.

And it still feels kind of dreamlike to some extent. It feels like a really big moment, both in the lives of everyone who's working for Intelligentsia right now, but also in the coffee industry more broadly. It's a little surreal to be in the moment.

Ashley: Speaking of this moment, it seems like a lot of things are currently just coming together. So there's the current labor movement that we're just in, in general—with so many Starbucks branches unionizing, with other coffee shops unionizing, the Colectivo union was a huge win for this movement, but it also seems like the pandemic really accelerated the need for a union.

I think we've talked a lot about how you started a union, but I think we wanna talk a little bit about why—and it seems like the pandemic had a big role in that for you folks.

Ravani: There are a lot of reasons why we want to unionize, right? And those reasons vary from person to person. But as someone who was there before the pandemic—there was no clarity over why people got fired. It was really a situation in which we were just completely at the mercy of Intelligentsia as a company and had no power and no way to fight back.

Ashley: Something I wrote down as you were talking was that there was no clarity on how or why people were being fired. I think that that speaks to a bigger theme when we talk about unionization—and it's something you mentioned before we started recording—was the idea of accountability. Being able to answer questions, being able to say, “Why is this happening in this way? And why aren't you giving me more information?”

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the idea of accountability in terms of this union and what you're hoping to achieve.

Ravani: Yeah. So the truth is we have a pretty sweet deal at Intelli, right? And the fact that we have a pretty sweet deal is like kind of the core of the anti-unionization campaign. For me, accountability is about making sure that when something like the pandemic happens again, like some sort of big financial crash, something that is really disruptive…

When something like that happens, I think it's really important to be organized and to have power, and to be able to say, “You can't treat us this way, this is not how you said you want to treat us.”

A union isn't gonna solve that issue singlehandedly, but it will provide a way for—if an employee is say, having an issue with management, right? Management is for whatever reason treating them a certain way, the union will be there to back that person up. If management makes the decision to fire someone over offenses that another person wouldn't get fired over, the union is there to say, “Okay, this is not actually a fireable offense. This does not violate the terms of our contract. You can't do this.”

That idea of having something that is kind of set in stone to say, “This is how we are going to be treated as employees. This is how we want to be seen as a collective union, unit, union—whatever—that deserves respect.” I think organization is how we get from point A to point B in terms of questions of respect and accountability.

Ashley: Something you said during that answer was that one of the lines of thought that is being used as like an anti-union rhetoric is that this is a pretty sweet job, which is a false, I think, claim—not necessarily that this is not a sweet job, but the idea that because it's a sweet job, you shouldn't need these protections.

But I think as you're rightly pointed out, workers in non-unionized places often don't know when the rug's gonna be pulled out from under their feet. You could be promised X, Y, and Z one day, and then suddenly those things don't happen to you anymore. And you're real people—you make life decisions based on these promises of what you're going to receive.

Like, “I'm gonna stay in Chicago for an extra couple of years because I've been told by my manager that I'm gonna get a three- and six-month raise,” and then that's just not there anymore. And I think that it's interesting that the idea that your job is good is a line of rhetoric that people use to fight against the union.

The idea that your job would be bad if the union wasn't there or that the company doesn't deserve this type of accountability claim because they already do an okay job, which I think is just like a false dichotomy.

Ravani: Absolutely. I 100% agree. At the end of the day, we are still workers and we are still, no matter how sweet the deal is, there's still that sort of baseline level of control that the company has over our lives.

Ashley: But they get to dictate the terms of how good your job is versus letting you—

Ravani: Exactly.

Ashley: Have any ownership over it.

Ravani: Exactly. I 100% agree. It is the fact that at the end of the day, Intelligentsia has all of the power and we have none of it. And a union is a really effective tool for balancing that situation.

Ashley: Power is a big thing I love talking about, because I think a lot of people think that anti-union efforts are fueled by money. They are not—they are fueled by power. They are fueled by the idea that somebody has power and they do not want to relinquish it.

But I think Intelligentsia is a really interesting situation because you were talking about accountability to workers and because Intelligentsia is owned by JAB.

They have this accountability to these stakeholders that are just like … not you. They're not you, they're not the people who are actually working every day.

I think it's just an interesting thing to think about because it's like, who are you accountable to? And it seems like in so many workplace situations, we're never accountable down. We're never accountable to the people who actually make the business go every day. And that's literally true in coffee shops.

Coffee does not happen if you do not show up and unlock the door and dial in espresso and welcome customers. But oftentimes companies where there is a stakeholder, where there is a board of directors, when there's somebody to answer to, because there's an influx of money happening from the top, a lot of who we answer to are those people.

It's interesting that we don't question that that often. And when it comes to things like this union effort, it's portrayed as this struggle, but it's like, we're just trying to get a seat at the table. We're just trying to assert the fact that we're here and we make this company happen.

Ravani: There are two things in what you said that I really wanna respond to.

One of the things I think is really exciting about both all the food service unions, but also all of the hotel unions and the hospitality union waves that have been happening—like room-keeping service being unionized—is how immediately, like, imagine a coffee strike, right? [If] it gets to the point where Intelligentsia is being super intractable, it takes like two days of us not opening for the shops to like, fall apart, right? It's not like a factory where they're able to have a bunch of back-stock cars that they're selling.

Ashley: But even then, like the union shut or the factory shutdowns of like Detroit-based car companies…

Ravani: Yeah! As I was saying that, I was thinking about a conversation I had with a friend that just-in-time production has really changed the game in terms of unions.

The ways in which we have these incredibly complicated supply chains has really given us a lot of power as workers. It has given us the ability to really affect change in our workplaces and also beyond our workplaces.

I think one of the things that really excites me about us unionizing is—I remember in various versions of the union chatter we've had, a lot of what we wanted to organize around wasn't necessarily improving our lot as workers, because we all were like, “Yeah, there's not that much more we want to ask for.” I mean, we always want more money. We always want more vacation days.

But also we wanna be organized, not just for really immediate concerns in our workplace, but so that way we can respond as a collective to these broader things that are happening. And your mention of the Detroit strikes just really brought that to mind because of the ways in which the Detroit strikes were so intimately woven into the Civil Rights Movement in a broader sense.

Ashley: Right, and then tying that back to another thing you said where maybe one person got fired for something, another person commits that same offense and they don't get fired—like, where is the accountability in that situation?

It seems like unions can really help almost litigate biases, make sure that there's accountability for like, “Hey, like if you're reacting this way to this person, not to this person, what is that saying?” We have a system in place to counteract this.

That's why we have this.

Ravani: Yeah, 100%.

Ashley: Something else that you mentioned too—which I think gets often ignored—is that you said that the union is good for both you folks as workers and for Intelli as a whole. And I think that is absolutely true, but like nobody else would say it. You know what I mean?

Like obviously Intelligentsia is not gonna say it, but as you were mentioning, unionized workers are probably more likely to stay at their jobs, they're probably more likely to feel like they have a seat at the table, so they're able to contribute positively to the work environment.

In a way, the union is almost saying, “We love this place and we wanna make it better.” It’s kind of in a convoluted way, an ultimate love letter to this place that you wanna make better. And you wanna invest your time in making it better.

Ravani: Yeah, 100%. I really love Intelligentsia. I think there are a lot of things that we do as a company that are really exciting and really exceptional, and I don't want that necessarily to be lost in this conversation. Like I keep coming back to this place whenever I'm living in the city of Chicago, because it's a great workplace in a lot of ways.

I think the ways in which we work with coffee farmers are really important and the ways in which we like set that model, that like pretty much all of specialty coffee at this point is following, of working directly with farmers, of paying more than fair trade prices, of helping them improve their farms—and I'm not necessarily trying to buy into the hype. There are a lot of problems with that. Fundamentally, the coffee industry has like a serious problem in that it is based on the exploitation of the Global South. That is the core dynamic that makes coffee, coffee, but in a lot of ways, Intelligentsia improved that situation over say a Starbucks, right?

I think the union is like an avenue in which, like you said, we can improve this company from the ground up. Workers can have more of a say in their situation. We can be more invested in our work. We can feel like we have the support that we need in order to be really good at our jobs.

Ashley: When I think about Intelligentsia five or 10 years ago, I think of people who are there forever.

Ravani: Yeah.

Ashley: And the fact that I'm talking to you now, I don't know that I know anybody who works there anymore. And I feel like I used to—that's maybe more of a personal thing, but there is something to be said about, what do we want for the future of coffee?

What do we want on a broad scale? And we do often talk about the future of coffee, as it pertains to coffee itself. We talk about sustainability. We talk about climate change and things like that. And not to say that those things are solved by any means. They're not, there are huge problems in the way that we source coffee.

And as you mentioned, it's built on the colonization of the Global South, but it seems like we have failed to recognize how important the sustainability of the people who work in coffee shops is—and why can't we have baristas who stay in their jobs for 10, 15, 20 years? Why can't that be a sustainable job?

Why can't it?

Ravani: Yeah!

Ashley: Like why? Why?

Ravani: Right. There's no good reason. [Making] good coffee is a really well-honed skill—I was not nearly as good at my job when I was doing this a year ago, even. I've been at this for five, six years now and I'm constantly growing and I'm constantly learning new things.

We should be able to look at a barista and say, “This is a career, right? This is something you can do for as long as you want to do it, and not something you're gonna get forced out of when you turn 35.” And as it stands now, it's something that you kind of get forced out of at a certain age, right?

Ashley: Right, because you can’t afford it.

Ravani: Or at least that's how it feels, yeah.

Ashley: And just to kind of extrapolate outward a little bit, all jobs deserve dignity. All jobs deserve the dignity of being able to go to work and say, “I can live my life based on the things that are happening in this situation. I can live my life based on the amount I'm getting paid here,” because every job … exists.

There's no less dignified, more dignified jobs. I hate stuff like that, but it's just saying that like, if we want people to work in these jobs, if we want our futures, just in general, to be better, we have to recognize the dignity of every single job and make space for people to say, “I demand more because I'm a human being and I want to be safe and secure at work.”

Ravani: Absolutely. I couldn't have said it better myself. You know, I think the question is then, how do we get from point A to point B? And I really think unions are like a big, big part of the answer, and is why I'm so excited to be in this stage in our unionization process, where it really feels like it's about to happen.

Ashley: Can you give me a timeline about what's next for you folks?

Ravani: Yeah. So our union ballots are currently in the mail. We all start voting right about now. Our last ballots have to be turned in by August 4th. And we find out three or four days later. I wanna say it's the 7th or the 8th—I can't remember which.

Ashley: So what happens? So you have the ballots, they're out to all of the employees. Is that correct?

Ravani: Yeah. So it's 27 workers. Anyone whose job title is barista or shift lead.

Ashley: And then you need a plurality, right? So you need more than 50%?

Ravani: Of people who vote. So if only 10 people vote and six of them vote “yes,” then we still have the union.

Ashley: Then once the union is recognized, that's a big step, obviously an important step, but that's not the end.

Ravani: No. Then we have to negotiate a contract. And this is what we have seen at Colectivo—is that the company tends to drag their feet. They negotiate in bad faith. They don't wanna give us a contract that is fair and on our terms, or they don't wanna give us a contract in a speedy manner because they don't want us to have a union.

So that is sort of gonna be the next big fight is if the vote goes our way, which based on the conversations I've been having, I feel really, really confident about—I would be genuinely shocked at this point to find out that this vote is not successful for us.

Ashley: Is there anything you want people to know about this stage of your union fight that maybe isn't obvious or maybe that people just wouldn't know—like, what are the best ways that folks can support you right now?

Ravani: I think one of the most effective ways that you can support is, if you come into the coffee shops, talk to us about the union. Let us know when you order your coffee. Like, “Hey, I heard about this. I'm super excited for you. That sounds awesome.” If you say that in front of management, it probably wouldn't hurt, but what, at this stage, really the big question is like, did Intelli successfully scare us out of a union vote?

We know that the majority of Intels want a union and the question—or at least they did before Intelli started their anti-union campaign. If the vote doesn't go our way, it means that Intelli ran a really successful anti-union campaign. I think one way to counteract that is to have folks from the outside say like, “Yeah, I think it's dope that you have a union or that you're trying to unionize. I think this is exciting.”

Yeah, I guess that's sort of the answer for me.

Ashley: Thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. I really appreciate it.

Ravani: Of course. This was really fun. Thank you for giving us some coverage.

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