On March 8, Lauretta Archibald marked her three-year anniversary as a baker for Colectivo Coffee Roasters, an upscale Midwestern coffee chain based in Milwaukee and Chicago.
In her years at Colectivo, Archibald had been responsible for making artisan bread in bulk, sometimes baking 1,000 loaves a night. It was arduous work, and Archibald says that she did not always have the support — or even materials — that she needed: the bakery was understaffed for stretches of time, there weren’t enough cooling racks and one of the ovens leaked the smell of gas through the kitchen.
When workers at the coffee chain first announced their plan to unionize with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Archibald — who eventually became a strong supporter of the union — wasn’t sure how she felt about the idea. “I didn’t know enough about unions to really say one or the other.” Still, she says, “I knew that something had to change.”
Workers say that last-minute scheduling, chronically broken equipment, and rapid expansion of the company brand spurred the union drive — while issues around Colectivo’s handling of Covid-19 popularized the campaign.
Now, Colectivo’s staff of about 375 workers faces an election that will decide the fate of a union drive nearly a year in the making, with ballots due on March 30 and counted in the first week of April. If the campaign is successful, the workers will make history: the industry is almost entirely unorganized, and Colectivo would become the largest unionized coffee chain in the country. But as bakers, warehouse workers and baristas mobilize support for the union, the company has responded with open hostility, hiring the Labor Relations Institute (LRI) — a well-known union buster — during the campaign.
“There are paid staff meetings where they’re asking us, individually, to vote no,” says Caroline Fortin, a shift lead at a location in Chicago. “So they’re very explicit.”
In These Times has also obtained copies of anti-union emails, “vote no” stickers and anti-union flyers drafted by Colectivo.
Management communications have invoked the anti-labor trope that unionization invites a harmful “third party” into the fold, and charge that the IBEW should not be representing the coffee workers. (In fact, most historic trade unions now represent a wide range of professions; many members of the United Auto Workers, for example, work in the nonprofit sector.)
One email from management goes so far as to highlight the high rate of attrition from the company for pro-union workers. “Of the 18 original organizing committee members, 10 remain employed today,” reads the email. The email goes on to list union organizers by job title and work location, with red slashes through those who no longer work at Colectivo.
Indeed, workers say that the anti-union campaign has gone beyond propaganda and disinformation.
When the union drive went public in August 2020, Zoe Muellner, a cafe worker, attached her signature to a letter notifying Colectivo of the plan to organize. She says that after the letter was released, upper management — with whom she interacted regularly as a barista trainer — stopped answering her emails and cut social ties.
A career barista, Muellner had worked in the coffee industry for six years — and Colectivo, for two — when the company cut her position as a trainer in October 2020.
“I asked if that meant I was done with the company in general, or if I could essentially take a demotion as a café coworker until they needed me back on in my position. And they said there were no positions available for me … but go ahead and file for unemployment, kid.”
Muellner and the union say the layoff amounts to retaliation.
Also in October 2020, Robert Penner — a specialized machine operator in the Milwaukee warehouse — was abruptly let go. Penner had taken part in “union talk” since 2019, and like Muellner, had come out in public support of the campaign in early fall of 2020.
Penner says that the company requested that he come back on board following a voluntary pandemic-related furlough in the summer — but before his first shift back, he was told that Colectivo no longer needed him. Since his departure, the company has resorted to filling Penner’s position with baristas.
“They were pulling in cafe workers who weren’t trained to work in the warehouse,” says Kait Dessoffy, a shift lead at a Chicago cafe.
Archibald says that she had a similar experience after speaking up at an anti-union meeting held by an LRI representative.
“Me and another coworker specifically, we challenged everything he said,” Archibald says. “After that night, that guy knew we were for the union.”
In the weeks following the anti-union meeting, she noticed changes at work. Archibald was required to quickly train her coworkers in braiding Challah bread — a job that was formerly one of her specialties. At the time, Archibald thought it was “weird” that managers had requested to inspect her coworkers’ practice loaves. “Normally, when we did practice stuff, it was really just practice,” she says. In retrospect, she believes management was getting things in line for her departure.
About six weeks ago, Archibald was abruptly moved off of her usual duties and instead instructed to prepare English muffins, a job for which she says she was never properly trained. She adds that management rapidly increased the number of biscuits she was required to bake — 400 one night, then 500, then 900.
“It felt like they were setting me up, you know, hoping I fail,” she explains.
Finally, on March 16, Archibald reports that she was fired for taking a smoke break. She left Colectivo just a week after her three-year anniversary with the company.
LRI, whose website brags that the firm “literally wrote the book in countering union organizing campaigns,” has been identified by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) as one of the largest union-busting firms in the United States. The company made a popular debut in the Oscar-winning 2019 documentary “American Factory,” which follows a union-busting campaign by a Fuyao Glass Company factory in Ohio.
According to company disclosures to the Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS), Colectivo pays LRI $375 an hour for services retained.
Even absent the involvement of a “labor consulting firm” like LRI, employer retaliation is endemic in union campaigns. In 41.5% of union elections in the United States, employers receive Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges— and surveys of labor organizations suggest that the number of instances of employer aggression during union campaigns is much higher.
The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), which was passed by the House of Representatives on March 9, attempts to curb this kind of union busting by banning “captive audience” meetings and instating stricter penalties for retaliatory firings.
In total, Colectivo has received six ULP allegations alleging retaliation and coercion during the ongoing union drive.
Still, union-busting tactics are not always straightforward, and can be difficult to prove. One Colectivo barista says that she has faced a subtler form of retaliation for her involvement with the campaign.
“I’ve always been, like, an over apologizer-type of person,” says Hillary Laskonis, a barista at Colectivo, explaining why her leadership in the campaign came as a surprise to some. “I think the owners take the whole thing personally.”
Laskonis says that managers have pulled her aside for multiple tense and vaguely disciplinary meetings. Recently, she says managers warned her that they had received multiple complaints about her attitude and performance. This took Laskonis, a Colectivo barista of three years, by surprise.
“[The meeting] was framed all around my mental health, and ‘what can we do to help you succeed, because you’re clearly struggling,’ and all this.” Coupled with the accusation that a coworker had been complaining about her, Laskonis says that the managers’ apparent concern for her mental wellbeing led her to question herself.
“It wasn’t until I talked to the other [union] members on a group chat,” says Laskonis, “that I was able to realize that, like, I was so majorly gaslit at a corporate level.”
Colectivo management did not respond to multiple requests for comment about allegations of misconduct by workers, but instead said in a statement, “We and our and leadership team recognize the complexity of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and turned to professionals who specialize in the law to ensure the company and its co-workers are fully informed.”
Workers, meanwhile, say that solidarity among staff has remained strong during the campaign, allowing them to continue to organize despite the ongoing anti-union rhetoric and activity.
“I think perhaps what management doesn’t realize about these [anti-union] meetings, or maybe about their staff, is that we’re really smart — we’re together. We are more than capable of forming our own opinions about our working conditions,” says Dessoffy.
“We work in service,” they add, “We know when someone is gaslighting us.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article listed the number of Colectivo employees as 500, based on figures from October, 2020. That number has been updated to reflect the current workforce.
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Alice Herman is a journalist covering politics and labor in the Midwest. She is a contributing reporter at the Guardian US and a former investigative reporting fellow with In These Times.