(ijeab via iStock)

Editors’ note: A prior version of this story didn’t sufficiently foreground workers’ concerns about their experiences at Colectivo Coffee, and also omitted important context about the racial dynamics of the unionization effort. The article has since been revised and updated to better reflect Prism’s mission to center workers, especially workers of color, in our coverage. In addition, any future reporting on this unionization push will prioritize workers’ voices. 

One month after café workers in Illinois and Wisconsin voted to unionize, management for their company is making a last-ditch effort to challenge their ballots. Colectivo Coffee is a coffee chain with 500 employees and more than a dozen locations across Wisconsin and Illinois. Employees began unionization efforts after complaining of unfair labor practices by Colectivo Coffee, including retaliation, unfair discipline, and surveilling employees. According to social media and website posts from Colectivo Collective, the group of employees that led the push for unionization, organizers are focused on securing improved working conditions and equipment maintenance, resolving worker scheduling issues, and ensuring the company addresses systemic racism within the workplace. 

“We couldn’t have accomplished this without the unimaginable amount of support we’ve received. Savoring this victory today, and soon, we’ll begin writing our first contract!” read a Facebook post from Colectivo Collective on Aug. 23. 

Management’s opposition to the union’s formation represents a stark contrast to the company’s name. Colectivo Coffee is white-owned, but the founders have previously said that the Spanish-language name is a reference to the “colectivo” buses many workers ride to their jobs in South America and Central America, where much of the company’s coffee originates. While the founders have suggested the seemingly worker-centered name was a nod to “a very populist streak that runs through the company,” management’s challenge to a union-formation effort motivated in part by concerns about systemic racism surfaced by Latinx,  Black, and other workers of color, calls that into image into question.

On Wednesday, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1220, which represents the Colectivo Collective union, presented their case to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in a near-to-last step to unionization after nearly two years of back-and-forth with Colectivo Coffee. Once the unionization is certified, the Colectivo Collective union would be the largest coffee shop union in the country. The initial union campaign launched prior to the pandemic, but Colectivo Coffee now joins a growing wave of unionization in the United States, led in part by low-wage workers and workers of color. Notably, however, earlier this year workers criticized the Colectivo Collective for its lack of racial diversity, acknowledging that while there were “BIPOC workers involved in organizing,” that the “Colectivo Volunteer Organizers are overwhelmingly white,” along with the IBEW organizers working on the campaign. It’s unclear whether those equity issues have been resolved as the collective has navigated the vote and ballot certification challenge. 

Both Colectivo Coffee and Colectivo Collective did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

The NLRB required management at Colectivo Coffee to present their case against union certification after they accused Chicago-based Local 1220, Wisconsin-based Local 494, and pro-union organizers of illegally mishandling ballots from their Aug. 23 vote. The vote results were announced by the union on social media in August, but then new appeals were brought forth by management. The final vote in favor of unionization cannot be certified until management’s challenge is resolved. 

“[On Wednesday] the company put out their case. They have the burden of proof,” said John Rizzo, business manager of IBEW Local 1220. “The union feels fairly confident, but it’s a hearing. It could go either way. And the Colectivists told their side of the story, which we feel very good about. They told the truth, and that’s what matters. Hopefully, the board will take all that into account, and maybe we’ll get a positive ruling.” 

Wednesday’s hearing was closed to the public. Colectivo Coffee has until Oct. 9 to file their closing briefs then the NLRB will make their ruling. If the NLRB rules in favor of the union, the next step will likely be contract negotiations. It is unclear whether Colectivo Coffee management plans to take other actions to stop the certification.

Last week, Colectivo Collective posted an update on social media announcing the upcoming hearing and urging folks to stay calm and unified.

“It’s not over yet folks! Colectivo is still challenging the results of our election,” the post read. “This means we will now have a Federal Hearing to determine the final results. Getting Served a subpoena is scary! we get it! All we have to do is tell the truth. The hearing on the 29th is the last roadblock we have until certification. We got this! Remember, We are stronger together! Solidarity Forever!”

Cirien Saadeh, PhD is an Arab-American community journalist, community organizer, and college professor teaching Social Justice and Community Organizing at Prescott College. Saadeh believes that journalism...