- Interview by
- Brynn Schaal
For almost a year now, workers at Colectivo Coffee, a Milwaukee-based chain with locations in Wisconsin and Illinois, have been organizing with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). This month, employees will vote whether to form a union. If the vote passes, Colectivo Coffee would be the largest unionized café chain in the United States.
Brynn Schaal spoke with Ryan Coffel, a café worker at a Colectivo location in Chicago. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you and your colleagues decide to organize?
It was last year, when COVID began. It was a small cadre of people in Milwaukee who were looking to have some time off and see what Colectivo’s procedures were going to be. It was very loosey-goosey. We made a public petition around March 15 of last year to close some stores for a little bit and to get paid. It fell on deaf ears until the petition went public, and as other companies and corporations were deciding to close down and the whole country went on lockdown, it became pretty apparent we needed to do the same.
During this, they kept the warehouse open without any sort of hazard pay. At that point, everyone wondered if we should start organizing a union and get some of these things in writing and in place so that we’re safe.
Did you have personal protective equipment in the warehouse?
Nope. We had nothing. There was no social distancing. I joined the organizing campaign [a short time] after this. I’m in Chicago, and our warehouse is in Milwaukee. They kept [the warehouse] open for grocery stores and at-home delivery, which makes sense — we still needed a revenue stream of some sort. Social distancing was not really a thing; masks were suggested until it became very clear we definitely needed to be wearing them. After the petition went public, [the warehouse employees] ended up getting hazard pay for a month, but then it all got taken away.
When we started interviewing labor organizations for who to represent us, we started with the Teamsters, because they had experience with another local chain in Milwaukee. We tried with the Industrial Workers of the World. We talked to the IBEW and figured out we would be able to get our bakery, our roasting plant warehouse, our café staff, our service technicians, our delivery drivers, all under one contract. That was really important for us, that it was all-or-nothing. I like the idea of having a contract that’s going to benefit all of us at the same time.
Baristas have made various attempts to organize for years, mostly to little or no success. What challenges have you faced organizing in the pandemic?
We had to organize all of the stores. When we first started, there were twenty-one. Now we’re down to sixteen. All of [the organizing] had to be done via Zoom and Facebook and texting. Half of the organizers I meet with on a weekly basis, I’ve never met in person. It’s a huge challenge, because the easiest way to talk to people is face-to-face, going to doors, going to stores. It was a challenge to get an ambassador in each store, talking about the union, talking about organizing.
The word “union” is such a bad word for corporations. Once you start talking about it, everyone kind of bristles up. They don’t want to get in trouble — especially during a pandemic, because they don’t want to lose their job. It was a challenge talking to people and saying, “this is something that we can do. This is something that will work and will benefit you.”
When we went public after we felt we had a strong organizing committee, we figured it would be easier to declare that there’s eleven of us who want to organize this union, it’s well within our rights, we will legally chat about it at work, and we hope there is no retaliation — please stay neutral. Immediately after, the company went into panic mode.
They hired union-busters. We had captive audience meetings in every single store. We heard from corporate, our owners, and our CEO that we’re losing money during the pandemic, but somehow they’re able to find $1,500 a day (not even including expenses and travel) to pay these people to come in and talk to us about why unions are great but not good for us. In the first round of union-busting meetings, we had them for two weeks, and they hired two [union-busters] — that’s three grand a day.
Some of our organizers were let go. Five of the organizing committee members had their positions eliminated. What drove me to reach out to people was that the company sent out a targeted email that identified all of the members of the organizing committee and questioned our leadership and our integrity and whether we care about the company or if we just care about destroying the company. You can just google “let’s get real Colectivo,” and there are four of those targeted emails that are on their website.
I’m not sure how long they’re going to stay on there, but it’s all the union-busting tactics of trying to make the IBEW only out for your money. In one email, it shows our names, and then there are dramatic red lines through the folks who’ve been terminated. But they don’t say in the email that they were terminated by the company; they just say they’ve left. It gives the reader the assumption that they left on their volition, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
One of our organizers was let go; they were a trainer in Chicago. When they were let go, they said if any position opens up, even if it’s a demotion, they wanted to come back. We are hiring now in every single one of our stores, and they have not received a call. Colectivo is not responding to emails of theirs. They have reapplied twice, and they’re not getting anything.
At the end of the day, we do give a shit about this company — we just want it to be better. We are in the stores every single day, and if they would have just taken what we had said [seriously], I don’t know if we would be in this position right now. I don’t know if we’d be fighting so hard to have a union. Since they didn’t, here we are. Now it’s time to take a little bit of the power and have a life that’s not controlled by our ownership.
With the exception of jobs in certain fields, the concept of being in a union is foreign to most working people, given how membership has plummeted in the last forty years. What have the conversations been like with your colleagues as you’ve organized?
We have a handbook covering our rules at work. Well, that handbook can be changed at any moment for any reason. Case in point: during the pandemic, they got rid of the attendance policy, because if you’re sick and you stay at home, you’re not going to get punished for being sick. The second we started organizing, immediately that attendance policy came right back, even stricter than before, disproportionately targeting organizers.
We are at-will employees, so at any moment they can walk in and fire us for no reason. A union would make us a just-cause company. They would have to have an actual, concrete reason to get rid of us. If there wasn’t, we could go to court and try to fight this, whereas you really don’t have that right as an at-will employee. You’re at the mercy of whatever the company or corporation wants to do. A contract completely changes that.
Right now, our schedules can be taken down at any moment. My schedule for [last] week, for example, [was] changed five times since it was originally posted. There’s never a reason given; it’s just, we changed it because our sales are getting bigger or our sales are lowering.
When we had the union-busting meetings — I’m sorry, the captive audience meetings, I can’t remember what they called it, union education or labor education seminars — they would just change our schedules the day before. You’d be scheduled to go to this meeting, regardless if you had plans. It was a mandatory meeting. With the contract, we can bargain for scheduling issues. Chicago has the Fair Workweek Ordinance, where you have to have three schedules up, and they can only take it down with your consent as a worker. And if you lose hours, the company has to pay you for those lost hours. That is something we can write into a contract to protect ourselves and actually have a life outside of work.
You mention in the More Perfect Union video that you and your colleagues have been subjected to intimidation and anti-union propaganda.
You’ve already mentioned captive audience meetings. What else has happened?
They’re doing targeted emails to certain staff members. The emails only go out to certain people and definitely not any of the organizers; I have not received any email whatsoever about this stuff. Our owners will just show up and pull you off the floor to have a one-on-one conversation to check in on you.
One of the stories that I’ve heard from some of our Milwaukee locations involved the owner talking to someone, and they said, “I’m not saying we would close if a union would pass, but . . .” and then he just walked away. One of our organizers was brought to a windowless room to have a one-on-one conversation. We have a “How to Vote” poster, and it’s not just how to vote but how to vote no. It’s all about voting no — legally they can do that — and they can say it’s being neutral and or that the union would irreparably destroy our culture.
Initially when we first started doing our community calls to action — we have an order-ahead app like every other company did during the pandemic — we had folks who were supporters [of our organizing efforts] change their name to IBEWStrong and then their name, so all one word, it would still show up and it would at least show the barista that this person is supporting us for what we do. About two weeks after we started doing that, our IT department got in [the app] and decided the letters IBEW were bad, so we would get these tickets that would just print out STRONG and whatever the customer’s name is.
Throughout this entire year, we were told the company has no money. So then we start having these captive audience meetings where they’re renting out theaters — they rented out a movie theater in Chicago and brought us there. The first round of these, maybe six weeks ago, was that if you were a vocal member of the organizing committee, you were not allowed to be there. They would move people’s schedules around so that everyone else could be there, but if [organizing committee members] requested to go to this meeting — which was paid — we were not allowed to go. I was not allowed [to go].
So we forced a meeting with the union buster and with our owners. Except our owners did not show up to it, and it was just the union buster and our CEO. That was only through Google Hangouts; they wouldn’t even come to us in person.
The good thing about all of this is that folks can see it, and they can see this is the hardest our company has fought for anything. So if that’s the case, then this union must be a good thing, and this must be something that we’re going to vote yes on, and that we’re going to be the road map for other cafés to do the same thing. We have the ability to make history as the largest café union, and if that’s the case, it should inspire others to do the exact same thing.
Have you received a good response from the community?
Absolutely. I have reached out to my alderman, I’m a part of a couple of community groups that I’ve been sharing our story with. We see more and more every day of supportive people coming in [the café]. It’s pretty cool to see the barista scream “#UnionYes” when they hand the drink out. There’s a big cheer and fists get put in the air. It’s a really cool solidarity moment. People who have never stepped foot in Colectivo are there to support us. I think that shows how much the community wants us to succeed.
What advice would you give to food service workers and other baristas looking to organize their workplaces?
The biggest thing is to get over the fear that it can’t be done. It’s definitely a scary process to reach out, because you have to do everything in the shadows until you have enough support to go public. Know you’re doing the right thing and reach out to labor organizations. Union names now are kind of a relic of the past — it doesn’t matter if it’s an electricians’ union or an auto workers’ union. If you think these people can help you and you think they are going to be able to protect you, reach out to them.