What the Colectivo Union Means for the Future of the Service Industry
The union's historic win marks a new chapter for service workers, but also represents a mutual reckoning with how restaurants should work
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Ten years ago, Colectivo Coffee (known then as Alterra Coffee, before Mars Incorporated bought the rights to the name in 2013) had a handful of coffee shops in its hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By 2021, it would have 20 locations, spanning the Milwaukee suburbs, Madison, and Chicago.
On August 23, Colectivo became the largest unionized coffee shop in the nation. This victory came after a year of organizing, led by employees who called themselves the Colectivo Collective. The collective battled ownership, which vehemently resisted the unionizing effort—it not only failed to recognize the union, but hired the Labor Relations Institute (LRI), a firm that claims to have written the book “in countering union organizing campaigns,” at an alleged cost of $3,000 per day. (Many of the testimonials on the LRI’s website profess gratitude for its work quashing organizing efforts among employees.)
But against the odds, and after the Colectivo Collective’s successful effort, over 400 employees—baristas, bakers, drivers, etc.— are now represented by the Colectivo Union, which is part of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 494 Wisconsin chapter and the IBEW Local 1220 in Illinois. After the vote, which took place in March 2021 but was contested until August, the owners of Colectivo issued a statement expressing their displeasure with the results.
Unions are good for people, simply put. Tangibly, unions reduce income inequality by compressing wage disparities. People who belong to unions receive 19% higher wages than their non-unionized colleagues.
In 2020, a year when 9.6 million people lost their jobs due to COVID-19, the percentage of people in unions grew from 10.3% to 10.8%. The actual number of people in unions did decrease in 2020—because of the pandemic, 321,000 unionized workers lost their jobs—but the percentage share of all unionized workers increased, partly because more people joined unions and partly because union workers were much less likely to lose their jobs during pandemic layoffs.
The owners of Colectivo (an ironic name for a company that professes not to need a union!) first acknowledged the union in a letter issued to employees in August 2020. In the letter, Colectivo CEO Dan Hurdle called the union a “third party,” and claimed that a union would rattle the dynamics of the workplace. “Camaraderie and respect would be replaced by workplace rules … A unionized work environment would change and undermine what’s most special about Colectivo – our close and collaborative relationship with our co-workers,” he wrote.
In reality, Hurdle’s comments betrayed a profound misunderstanding of those workplace dynamics. Workers at Colectivo had long been complaining about stagnant wages, unpredictable schedules, and an inadequate response to COVID safety measures. Their efforts to unionize represented a collective frustration, felt not just by coffee shop workers, but by low-wage employees across the board—those whose concerns are most often trivialized, ignored, or difficult to ascertain because of the unstable, atomized nature of hourly work. Such employees aren’t sitting together in an office swapping stories over a water cooler, or chatting away about nothing as they wait for a Zoom call to start. Instead, they’re flying solo on delivery routes or distracted by continuous, and exhausting, customer service work.
This makes the work unions do even more vital, as folks become less connected to their fellow co-workers and have no sounding board to affirm and validate their on-the-job experiences. Instead, most employees have to take their grievances directly to management—at best, their concerns are often ignored, and at worst, they face retaliation for stepping out of line.
The significance of Colectivo as the nation’s largest coffee union is hard to overstate. As Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) reports, a union of this scale can inspire other coffee shops and service workers to begin contacting their local union chapters and start the process of organizing. “I think once you see it can be done, especially at the scale we just did it, it’s an easy conversation started at the work site,” says an anonymous organizer quoted in the WPR piece. “Saying ‘Oh my God, did you see Colectivo just organized,’ and then relating what we’re doing to their specific situation.”
There are only a handful of coffee unions currently, but the pace at which new organizations have sprung up is hopeful, including the Slow Bloom Coffee Cooperative (created by the former employees of Augie’s Coffee); the Tartine Union; and the baristas at Likewise, an individual coffee shop that was formerly owned by Wonderstate, a larger chain of coffee shops based in Viroqua, Wisconsin. The baristas at their Third Ward location in Milwaukee began organizing, which the owners failed to voluntarily recognize before selling the cafe amidst union conversations. The new owner, Scott Lucey, a former Wonderstate employee, worked with employees to ratify a union contract.
A post from @steph.achter relaying the story of the Likewise Union and Wonderstate’s actions before selling the shop. Click the post to read more.
The trajectory of union organizing is picking up momentum, and the benefits of unionizing are clearer than ever for employees (it seems befuddling that, as a society, we’re not more supportive of unions, which I’ve written about here). But what often gets in the way of a person’s right to organize is the overriding belief that restaurants have the right to operate as they always have, and to grow and spend money relentlessly.
I wanted to draw attention to Colectivo’s expansion over the last 10 years, because it’s aggressive—and yet incredibly common. To go from one or two to 20 locations over 10 years is astounding, but that pace of growth barely garners any attention or debate from the public. (Some criticism did fall on Colectivo when it expanded to Madison, but not because anyone felt it didn’t have the right to expand; rather, it was because Madison had “too many coffee shops already.”) Most businesses that find success often push that success by heedlessly growing bigger, and it’s often at the cost of their current and future employees’ well-being.
Unions threaten an employer’s ability to do what they want when they want it. Colectivo’s multi-shop expansion cost millions of dollars—for example, it bought its Monroe Street location in Madison for $745,000—while employees complained about not receiving job evaluations that would translate to modest wage increases. The assumption that a business’s growth ambitions should trump employee welfare is common among owners: In the aforementioned WPR article, Joe Muench, the co-owner and a chef at Black Shoe Hospitality, expressed reluctance regarding unions, saying that it’d be bad for his business if his employees unionized and would result in higher costs to consumers.
“If you put in a universal hospitality union, everyone from McDonald’s to Kwik Trip all the way to a Hilton Hotel or high-end restaurant would have the benefits, a union isn’t paying for those,” Muench told WPR. “It would have to come from the public.”
But this guy co-owns four restaurants. The owners of Colectivo own 20 shops altogether. While that scale of expansion rarely receives scrutiny, when workers demand that their voices be heard, it’s suddenly an attack on the entire restaurant industry.
I know there’s an argument for scaling up: Most businesses don’t make money unless there are a number of locations, but that often assumes the owner is not working directly in the business—that they’re not behind the bar or serving people on a daily basis. Instead, they’re elsewhere, gathering financial resources and plotting a plan to keep growing. Wouldn’t it be OK if someone opened a coffee shop and—gasp!—worked in their own damn cafe without dreaming of empire-building? What is the job of an “owner” really—and aren’t we collectively better served when lots of people take ownership of an experience or space?
Right now, the restaurant world is led by chains and restaurant groups. Coffee shops are likewise dominated by local and national companies. I think as unions continue to gain steam, we have to ask ourselves what we see the future of restaurants looking like, particularly as sustainability and climate change become an ever-greater concern. We should also ask ourselves what the goal of ownership really is.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the end of restaurant and coffee-shop conglomerates. But I do think there will be more unions—and more cooperatively owned spaces—in future. As consumers, part of our job is to seek out these spaces and show them support through our patronage.
Even though the unionization effort at Colectivo was long and fraught, their victory means now is the time to bolster their efforts. This Labor Day, they’re organizing a reverse boycott, and are encouraging folks to, instead of avoiding Colectivo, come and enjoy coffee brewed by a unionized workforce. The folks at Colectivo have taken one step forward to reimagine what the future of the restaurant industry could look like. Let’s join them.
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Scott Lucey is also a former Colectivo employee