In April, a vote by Colectivo Coffee workers on whether or not to unionize split on a 99 to 99. Shortly after the vote, sixteen ballots were challenged and handed off to the National Labor Relations Board ( NLRB) for deliberation.
On Monday, the NLRB released its decision on the contested ballots — bringing the count to 106 workers in favor of unionizing to 99 against. The NLRB’s decision marks one of the final steps for Colectivo’s workers to organize into an official union.
Dean Warsh is a business manager with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 494 out of Milwaukee. Warsh, and the IBEW, have played a major role in helping the Colectivo workers organize over the past year.
“NLRB has seven days to certify the vote, so we’re looking at — next Monday or Tuesday — getting the certification back,” Warsh says. “There are objections to the election which they’ll have to go through. I’m not sure what all the objections are, but we’re hoping everything gets dropped and we can sit down with ownership and get a deal done.”
When the Labor Relations Board certifies the vote results, Colectivo workers, management and the IBEW will sit down to negotiate a new contract — a process Warsh says could take anywhere from a few hours to a few months.
“That’s a crystal ball question,” he says. “We cover 18 contracts out of our office. Some of them we sit down and we’re done in an hour and a half. Others go on for months and can end up in arbitration. It can go either way.”
Colectivo is poised to become the largest unionized café chain in the nation. According to Colectivo management, the chain employs about 440 people.
In a statement issued after the NLRB’s decision, Colectivo management wrote that “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 chain’s owners also expressed concern that a minority of workers had voted in favor of unionizing. More than 300 ballots were issued to workers in April — of which around 200 were returned. 106 of those ballots were in favor of unionizing.
David Nack is a professor emeritus at UW-Madison’s School for Workers. Prior to that role, he spent 24 years as an organizer and business agent in both public and private sector unions.
Nack says that organizing unions in the restaurant and service industry has historically proven tricky, as high turnover rates make collective action more difficult.
“You have a very fluid workforce where people are coming and going all the time,” he tells WORT. “When you have a very high turnover of the workforce, it makes it much harder to communicate with people or track who’s who and who’s still there. In many instances you have relatively low-paid workers and the employers feel like they can pretty much throw their weight around.”
Ida Lucchesi, a Colectivo barista, expressed optimism about the Colectivo union’s future at a press conference in Milwaukee today.
“I feel 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,” Lucchesi told reporters. “So being able to build on that is going to be really rewarding. I think it’ll also be important to show other people in the service industry that it can be done and they can work towards this as well.”
Colectivo operates three shops in Madison — one on Monroe Street, one on State Street and one on the Capitol Square.
Photo: A Colectivo Coffee location on State Street / Jonah Chester
EDITOR’S NOTE: The broadcast version of this story incorrectly stated that 116, not 106, Colectivo workers voted to unionize.