The recent controversy between Colectivo Coffee Roasters and its employees stems from the backlash created from the attempt to unionize due to COVID-19 working conditions.
Workers at Colectivo Coffee, a Milwaukee-based coffee chain with locations throughout the Midwest, are making an attempt to organize a union with the help of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).
In response, Colectivo owners brought in labor law experts to deter workers from unionizing, as they believe it will change the culture of the Colectivo community, according to the letter owners sent out in response to the unionization attempt.
The initial call for change started with the COVID-19 pandemic back in March, when workers felt that owners were not taking the proper safety precautions needed to safely keep their cafes open. In August, workers again called for a union when they found their requests for basic safety measures not being met.
Employees such as Em Mendez-Smith have been heavily involved with the push to unionize since March. Mednez-Smith, who works at the State Street location, has been working with the Volunteer Organizing Committee, the group of Colectivo workers directly involved with establishing the union and communicating directly with the IBEW.
Colectivo attempted to stay open when the pandemic first hit, instead opting to serve entirely to go and solely with disposable dishes. They also told workers shifts were optional to attend, but only if workers had saved up paid time off, which did not accommodate workers who had health emergencies or sickness and had already used their paid time off.
“The initial push to unionize was made in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the Midwest,” Mendez-Smith said.
After learning this, workers created a petition and email campaign to demand a close for at least two weeks with paid leave, and the company complied with their demands. This win for employees was a catalyst for the push to unionize.
Although Colectivo complied with the initial request for a two week quarantine, this pause did not extend to warehouse workers and delivery drivers.
“The warehouse workers and delivery drivers have been absolute heroes throughout the pandemic, as they’ve kept working the whole time even when their hazard pay was discontinued,” Mendez-Smith said.
The company’s decision to not speak about the on-going Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s death along with the reopening of cafes state-wide led to a public outcry for unionization, according to Mendez-Smith.
“There had already been petitions and activism before the union effort officially started, which made starting it a lot easier,” Mendez-Smith said.
The organizers sent upper management a letter detailing their desire to unionize with a list of their names, in order to quell any potential repercussions from management. Two weeks later, management sent an “union-busting” email, according to employees.
Owners Ward Fowler, Lincoln Fowler and Paul Miller, sent a letter to their employees strongly expressing that they were opposed to the unionization effort.
In reaction to this attempt, the local coffee chain has hired a high-priced firm, Labor Relations Institute, that specializes in dealing with unions, preventing unions and beating unions in the National Labor Review Board election.
A spokesperson for Colectivo told Urban Milwaukee, “We have been holding informational meetings with experts on labor law, to listen and factually address our coworkers and their questions and concerns.”
Colectivo owners have declined to make public comments at this time.
Recently, on Small Business Saturday, employees called for a “reverse boycott” of Colectivo Coffee establishments in order to send a message to the owners that a union can be good for business.
The reverse boycott entailed asking customers to order on the new mobile app and include a message of support for employees.
If Colectivo employees are successful in forming a union, they would hold a vote to see which issues they should prioritize. Issues at the forefront of their campaign currently are establishing scheduled raises and just-cause termination, in addition to bringing in anti-racism, diversity and de-escalation training for workers.