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Q&A: Intelligentsia Barista Union
Intelligentsia baristas discuss how they were able to ratify a union after just four months—and what the process of collective bargaining looks like.
Hi friends! Yesterday, Boss Barista turned six! Its evolution has happened in stages: The podcast officially launched on February 1, 2017; the newsletter started beginning in mid-2019; and what I’d call the “new era” of the newsletter, with a more robust plan and regular schedule, kicked off from January 2021.
Thank you so much for supporting this endeavor over the years. Boss Barista was born out of frustration with some coffee bros, and now it’s a whole thing, an entire section of the internet. So many wonderful people have shared their insights, stories, and hot takes on the show, and the folks who listen and read have been so kind and generous to me. It’s truly an honor to get to be part of this.
At this moment, what would mean the most to me is if you could show support financially, if you can. (If you can’t, please share this newsletter with someone else or tell me what one of your favorite interviews or articles were.) Right now, we have about 100 paid subscribers, and the newsletter brings in roughly $7,000 a year. That’s the most money I’ve ever made making this thing—and this is also the best it’s ever been. That money gives me way more time to edit audio episodes, and I work with an editor to polish the written content.
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And with that, today’s post is a Q&A that feels very appropriate for our sixth birthday: It’s about unions!
In May 2022, the baristas of five Chicago-based locations of Intelligentsia Coffee announced their intent to unionize. I interviewed a member of their union effort last August to learn more about how the union began organizing, and how workers planned to pursue formal recognition. By December, a contract had been ratified. 31 baristas are now covered by the union, and receive paid 30-minute meal breaks, double-time pay for holidays, better starting wages, and more paid time off.
On average, it takes 409 days for a union to ratify a contract, which is a key step in the unionizing process. Workers can vote to form a union, but the union itself doesn’t confer any rights or protections until a contract is ratified. During that time, many companies actively try to push back on bargaining attempts to delay and discourage workers.
Workers at Colectivo Coffee (two of whom appeared on the show in 2021) have been fighting to unionize since 2020, and after years of pushback from ownership, won their union vote in March 2022—but there’s been no news since about a contract being ratified. Starbucks has been a case study in skirting collective bargaining attempts: It has walked out on multiple contract negotiations, and out of the 250+ Starbucks locations that have voted to unionize, it’s unclear if a single one has been able to negotiate a contract with the megachain.
That’s why Intelligentsia’s union stands out—it only took about four months to go from union vote to contract. So I asked Jordan Parshall, worker representative for the Intelligentsia baristas, how they were able to ratify a union, and what the process of collective bargaining looks like. He shares more on that below:
What was communication like between the union and management once you announced your intent to unionize?
The communication between our local, IBEW 1220, and the company after we announced our intent to unionize by filing our petition for election in May 2022 was primarily done through our respective legal teams. Because the process of organizing one’s workplace is legislated by the National Labor Relations Act, every part of the process, from the intent to organize to ratifying a contract, is legally regimented.
That may sound scary, but it’s a good thing! The NLRB ensures that all workers who show interest in unionizing get due process and minimizes the amount of work that actual workers have to volunteer to do.
Can you briefly explain the process between forming a union and ratifying a contract? A lot of people might think forming a union confers the protections of a union, but it’s not until you ratify a contract that actual protections are put in place, right?
Correct! The process between voting to unionize and ratifying a contract is commonly referred to as the bargaining process. It is where representatives from the union, workers, and management go to a table and bargain a contract with the advice of our attorneys. The contract governs what the workplace looks like and what benefits employees receive. Workers are not officially union members until they are governed by a contract.
What were some of the things you wanted the union to ensure? Did you folks list things you wanted before coming to the bargaining table? How did you collectively decide what those things would be?
In preparation for bargaining, our local sent out a survey for baristas to complete, hosted meetings for baristas to voice their opinion, and made shop visits to talk to baristas on the job. They also relied heavily on me as the worker representative at the table to communicate my own needs as well as the needs of my coworkers.
This underscored for me the importance of workers getting involved and making their voices heard in every step of organizing one’s workplace. The resounding sentiment among my coworkers and I was that we wanted a serious increase in our compensation package, which would include better wages and more paid time off.
How did the bargaining process go? Could you paint us a picture since so many people never get to this point? Was it a smooth process?
In our scenario, the bargaining process included Intelligentsia’s director of retail, director of people and culture, representatives from IBEW 1220, our attorneys, and myself representing the baristas. We would all literally go to a table, either in a legal office Downtown or on Zoom, sit on opposite sides, and argue (respectfully) about what we wanted our workplace to look like and what benefits we wanted from our company.
We would go over every part of the contract and offer proposals and counter proposals until we could reach an agreement. We would have caucus time between proposals, which was a private discussion with only one side of the table to formulate our proposals or respond to the other side’s proposals.
How did you negotiate? Were there concessions you had to make? What were some of the biggest victories?
The biggest victory we received was 30-minute paid breaks. Because of Illinois labor law, we are required to take 30-minute breaks. However, before the contract, those breaks were unpaid. So, if we were scheduled one day for 7 hours, for example, we would only walk away with 6.5 hours of pay.
In order to get this victory, we had to compromise on the increase in our wages (which was only a 5.5% increase, on the shorter side for contracts). Still, we agreed to it because the paid breaks are in and of themselves a 6-8% increase in wages, depending on how long one’s shift is. So, all told, we negotiated a wage increase of over 10% and a substantial increase in vacation time and holiday pay.
What does the final contract look like? What does it protect? How long is it good for?
We negotiated a 2-year contract, and contracts usually last for 2-5 years. Because this is our first contract, the union and the company wanted it to be on the shorter side so we can assess what is working for us and what is not.
In addition to the economic benefits mentioned above, we also received a right to labor/management meetings, a grievance and arbitration procedure, just cause discipline, minimum shift lengths, a more generous and flexible holiday policy, and more.
I think there’s this idea that negotiations like this are always adversarial, and perhaps yours was. Still, it’d be interesting to break that down more because I think unions represent a lot of hope and commitment to improving a particular workplace. Did you ever feel like that message landed?
I think our negotiations, in particular, were indeed aspirational, as you describe. Intelligentsia bargained in good faith with us, and I am thankful for that. The director of retail and I agreed from the beginning that Intelligentsia is a great place to work; we were going to make it better by hammering out a contract that would benefit the company by reducing turnover and that Intelligentsia plays a key role in the coffee business in Chicago and beyond.
I do want to admit, however, that the entire process of organizing a union is a conflict; it is a conflict between workers and their bosses in which workers are empowered to extract concessions from their bosses. Both history and the news are rife with stories about these conflicts. And look, I get it—this may be intimidating to some baristas. But, if we are going to increase the prestige of our profession, we need to charge fearlessly into this conflict. If we believe that baristas have a vital role in society and if we believe that giving people the cup and the words of encouragement that helps people get through their day is important, then we have to fight and bargain for enough money that makes this profession a career worth doing.
What do you want people to know about this process?
I want people, especially baristas in Chicago and across the country, to know they have friends who will fight for them in the labor movement. If you want to organize your coffee company, get in touch with IBEW Local 1220, or an SEIU or UFCW local near you. Give our offices a call. We’re here to help you be the barista you want to be for the rest of your career.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Photo by Oleg Lekhnitsky.