On Oct. 27, more than 100 people gathered outside the Milwaukee County Courthouse to march in support of several ongoing unionization efforts and labor struggles in the city. The march stopped outside various locations linked with ongoing union struggles and concluded outside Colectivo Coffee Roaster’s Lakefront cafe.
Milwaukee is a historic union town where manufacturing once dominated and unions represented thousands of factory workers. In recent years, unionization efforts have been hit hard by deindustrialization, the shift to a service economy and Republican Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10, which stripped unions of their collective bargaining powers, making Wisconsin a “Right to Work” state.
However, in 2020, Milwaukee has seen a union resurgence among service and small industry workers, including local cafe chain Colectivo Coffee Roasters, the iconic Milwaukee Art Museum, the federally funded private audio captioning firm CapTel, popular local restaurant Comet Cafe and graduate workers at Marquette University. Milwaukee Public Museum workers of AFSME Local 526, who are fighting for a new contract, also organized to support the solidarity march.
Multiple generations of union organizers turned out, creating a new energy that the labor movement has not seen in a long time. Speakers from each organization spoke about their struggles, underscoring the extreme pushback they experienced from their employers as well as the incredible support they have received from union organizers and the community.
“To me, the march was about showing one another that we are are paying attention to each other’s struggles, that our issues are not entirely unique or confined to our separate workplaces, and that ultimately we are there to back one another as needed to the best of our ability,” said a Milwaukee Art Museum worker.
Across the country, museum workers have been organizing and forming unions at a record pace. This recent development was not lost on Jacob Flom, a Public Museum worker and organizer with AFSME Local 526, who noted that, “Milwaukee Public Museum employees are thrilled to march with Milwaukee Art Museum workers. From our experience with a year-long campaign for a fair contract and livable wages, we know when we fight, we win. Museum workers are stronger together, and we are going to make the museum industry a better place to work.”
Similarly, a great deal of solidarity was built between different coffee shop workers who are fighting to form unions.
Most notably, workers at Colectivo Coffee Roasters have been working with IBEW Local 494 since March to establish wall-to-wall union representation in all 21 cafes, production and bakery locations in Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago.
“In March, COVID-19 exposed the true vulnerability that low wage workers in our industry experience all the time. Since we’ve begun organizing at Colectivo we’ve learned about so many other unionizing efforts at coffee companies across the country, as well as right here in Milwaukee. Together we’ve already seen what a positive impact the collective voice of workers can have on the health and safety of a workplace. We think that preserving that collective voice with a union contract is the only way forward for low-wage essential workers like ourselves,” said Hillary Laskonis, a barista at Colectivo’s Humboldt location in Milwaukee. Workers from Wonderstate Coffee Roasters and Stone Creek Coffee Roasters also made statements of solidarity in support of Colectivo workers.