Economy & Business

Coffee Workers Unite

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In Milwaukee, baristas turned to the electricians’ union for help in forming their own, and the owners are steamed.

What do Milwaukee’s overeducated hipster baristas and blue-collar commercial electricians have in common? Partnership with the IBEW Local Union 494, as of this week.

Employees of Colectivo, a local roastery and chain of cafes, voted 106–99 to organize, citing working conditions and irregular hours. Company owners opposed the formation of the union and questioned the counting of votes. Nonetheless, the National Labor Relations Board will certify the election next week, making the Colectivo organization effort the largest café workers’ union in the nation.

The voting controversy has to do with seven dubious votes in favor. After initial voting, the effort stalled at a 99–99 deadlock. Then, seven additional votes for unionization were accepted, though they were cast by employees who had put in a notice of resignation and would no longer be part of the company. The NLRB approved the seven votes over the cries of “foul” from ownership, and the barista unionization moved forward.

While the unionization effort was successful, it should be noted that Colectivo employs nearly 500 people, meaning a majority of employees did not vote for or against the proposal. Whether they voted or not, these employees will be dealing with the economic millstone of unionization around the neck of the company for which they work.

When contacted for comment by National Review, Colectivo’s owners opted not to respond. Instead, Mueller Communications, a local PR firm, replied with a link to a previous statement, some of which reads:

We are disappointed by this result because a majority of our coworkers did not vote in favor of unionization and because the NLRB counted votes of several individuals who announced their resignations prior to the close of the election. We don’t think those former coworkers should have been allowed to have a voice in unionization at an organization where they did not intend to work. The outcome is the result of a process that took place last spring and our employee census is dynamic. At final count, less than one third of the eligible co-workers supported the union, and as of today, it is our best estimate that fewer than 100 of our current 440 co-workers voted for this union. We will, of course, respect the rules and bargain in good faith.

It’s hard not to find amusement in the ownership’s discomfiture, as Colectivo — like many coffee shops — is explicitly politically progressive and whose name evokes “collective.” Even left-wing business owners know that unions are bad for business; it’s just tough to muster sympathy for them.

Colectivo employee Ida Lucchesi, speaking to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the developments, said, “Over this last year and a half, we have really worked as a unit and gotten to know a lot of people across the company and so being able to build on that, even more, is going to really be rewarding.”

NR also reached out to the union, IBEW Local 494, to better understand why baristas had turned to electricians for help. The union’s political director, John Zapfel, explained that the baristas had approached them about organizing. He said IBEW organizes any group, not just electricians, mentioning railroad workers and nurses as examples.

While the unionization will almost certainly cause a price increase for Colectivo’s customer base, it’s difficult to say whether it will be the death of the franchise. Price-sensitive coffee drinkers already avoid the establishment, as its offerings make Starbucks look like a deal.

Will customers care if a $6 coffee becomes a $7 coffee? Perhaps not. Therein is Colectivo’s advantage: Coffee is a luxury good — and relaxing in a café a luxury service — that young, urbane people are more willing to spring for.

If successful, this union may cause others in food services to consider organizing. If unsuccessful — meaning if Colectivo collapses — you’re not likely to read in the press that the reason for it was unionization’s parasitism.


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