Almost a year after the workers at Colectivo Coffee Roasters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, voted to unionize with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the National Labor Relations Board has made a final decision about the results, determining that the challenges by Colectivo’s owners, and their union-busting lawyers, were without merit. In her final decision on the case issued on March 24, NLRB Chairwoman Lauren McFarren wrote simply, “The Employer’s Request for Review of the Regional Director’s Decision and Certification of Representative is denied as it raises no substantial issues warranting review.”
This decision comes after a long and bitter anti-union campaign, in which the owners of Colectivo, Lincoln and Ward Fowler, Paul Miller and CEO Dan Hurdle, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to kill the union effort. Their iron-fisted tactics, such as retaliation against pro-union employees, mandatory captive audience meetings and a steady stream of company-wide communications chock full of anti-union propaganda, made workers even more resolute in their belief in the necessity of a union in their workplace.
“This has been a long journey, but the feeling I had when I heard that the request for review had been denied, it was all worth it. I immediately felt so much lighter, knowing that the next step for certain is negotiation. I am so ready and excited to have a more equitable and sustainable workplace,” said Ida Lucchesi, a member of the Volunteer Organizing Committee in Milwaukee.
While Colectivo workers feel vindicated that their efforts have paid off, Colectivo’s owners released a brief statement: “We have decided not to continue our legal appeal and will commence to prepare to bargain in good faith with the union. We have been, and always will be, committed to the success of our co-workers and bringing an exceptional experience to our customers.” The blatant falsehoods of this statement are not hard to find. Primarily, Colectivo’s owners did not decide to discontinue their appeals to the NLRB. Rather, their baseless claims were shot down by NLRB officials three times before Chairwoman McFarren issued a final decision. They did not continue their legal battle because there was nowhere else to take it.
“The NLRB reviewed the ‘issues’ that ownership thought existed with the election multiple times and at all levels and found them to be nonexistent,” said Chicago organizer Zoe Muellner. The claim made by Colectivo’s owners that they will “bargain in good faith” and are “committed to the success of our co-workers” ring hollow for Muellner, who was fired by Colectivo in bad faith in the midst of the campaign.
Despite an extremely positive campaign by IBEW, which encouraged people to spend their money at Colectivo locations with the phrase “IBEW Strong” or “Union Strong” as part of their order, the owners maintained an oppositional attitude, making changes to their ordering app so that these two phrases could not be used, and refusing to receive a petition from workers and community members asking them to end their bad faith appeals and come to the table to bargain. “Now, the final decision has been made by the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., that the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is officially and without question, the union representative of the workers of Colectivo Coffee,” said IBEW Local 494 Business Manager Dean Warsh.
For almost a year, pro-union workers have been surveying their co-workers, asking what they would like to see in a contract, and figuring out how best to represent the interests of all workers, regardless of whether they support the union or not. Throughout this process, enthusiasm for the union among Colectivo workers has only increased, as has the energy behind union efforts in coffee shops and roasters across the country. In December 2021, Starbucks workers in two Buffalo, N.Y., stores won their union elections in what has proven to be just the beginning of a nationwide campaign.
These union victories are not just wins for the workers involved. They are wins for workers everywhere. The Colectivo union campaign was inspired by earlier victories like Gimme! Coffee baristas in Ithaca, N.Y., in 2017, the Washtenaw Area Coffee Workers’ Association in Michigan in 2019, and SPoT Coffee Roasters in 2020, and has in turn inspired the ongoing effort to unionize coffee workers nationally. “While this has taken such a long time, all the while with us holding our breath, it’s definitely helped to give us greater lung capacity all the better with which to fight for workers rights here and everywhere,” said Muellner.