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As Starbucks Workers United racks up victory after victory in union elections across the country, workers at Intelligentsia Coffee — a small, specialty coffee company based in Chicago — are also aiming to improve their pay and working conditions by unionizing.
Last week, dozens of workers at Intelligentsia’s five Chicago cafes and roasting works center filed for a union representation election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). They are seeking to organize with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1220, a union they’ve been in contact with since November.
Intelligentsia also has cafes in Los Angeles, Boston, New York and Austin, Texas. So far, the union effort is limited to Chicago.
“The motto of Intelligentsia is that ‘great coffee is not the result of chance.’ I don’t think you get the best workers to produce the best coffee by the result of chance,” said Jordan Parshall, a barista at Intelligentsia’s cafe in Chicago’s downtown Monadnock Building. “So, we really need to put our wages, benefits and conditions in a contract that’s reliable and consistent for all employees.”
Parshall and his fellow Intelligentsia workers hope that through collective bargaining they can address issues such as pay, staffing, benefits and paid holidays. IBEW Local 1220 estimates the bargaining unit will consist of about 50 employees, though the exact number won’t be known until the company provides that information for the NLRB election.
Prior to being hired at Intelligentsia a year ago, Parshall worked for Peace Coffee in Minnesota. Like millions of other workers at cafes, restaurants and bars across the country, he was laid off when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. He said the pandemic made baristas acutely aware of their economic precarity, helping spark the growing union wave in the coffee industry.
“We realized that there was nobody looking out for us if our workplaces were to close, there was nobody protecting us, nobody making sure we had good severance or anything like that,” Parshall said. “We all went through this collectively traumatic experience, where if it weren’t for the government stepping in and sending us all checks, we would’ve all probably been hungry.”
Last year, IBEW Local 1220 and Local 494 successfully unionized around 400 workers at Colectivo Coffee — another specialty coffee chain with cafes in Milwaukee, Madison, Wisc. and Chicago. IBEW Local 1220 told In These Times that the Colectivo union will begin bargaining its first contract later this month.
Parshall said he and his coworkers were “vaguely talking” about forming a union at Intelligentsia last year, and they were aware that Colectivo workers had unionized with the IBEW. “One day, a guy with an IBEW hat walked into Monadnock and I asked him if he knew anybody who could help us out, and sure enough he connected us with Local 1220,” he explained. “They’ve been incredible partners for us and empowered us to organize at our workplace.”
“[Intelligentsia workers] looked to Colectivo and believe that they can also make a difference in their workplace. Starbucks looked at Colectivo and organized in Buffalo, New York,” said John Rizzo, business manager for IBEW Local 1220. “All it takes is for someone to take that first step and you create a movement.”
The union drive at Intelligentsia went public the same week that Starbucks Workers United won its first union elections in Chicago at two stores in the Edgewater neighborhood on the city’s North Side. Three more Chicago Starbucks locations are scheduled to hold their NLRB elections on June 7, and another on June 14. And just this week, two additional Starbucks stores in Chicago filed for union elections. Since December 2021, over 100 Starbucks stores have won their union campaigns.
While Starbucks Workers United has been unionizing cafes one-by-one, with each constituting its own bargaining unit, IBEW Local 1220 aims to unionize all of Intelligentsia’s Chicago locations at once in a single bargaining unit, which is also how the union organized Colectivo.
Parshall explained that for smaller coffee companies like Intelligentsia and Colectivo, which each only have around 20 locations nationwide, “it makes a lot of sense for us to unionize the whole company and work on a united contract.” But at a huge corporation like Starbucks, which has about 9,000 locations in the United States, he continued, “it might make more sense for them to go store-by-store, franchise-by-franchise and build throughout the company.”
The Intelligentsia union would include not only the baristas at the five Chicago cafes, but also workers at the company’s Chicago Roasting Works (CRW), where the coffee beans are roasted, packaged and shipped. Employees allege there is no air conditioning inside the roasting works and that management won’t allow them to leave the machines for water breaks when it gets hot. The company did not respond to a request to comment on those allegations.
“I’ve definitely been able to meet folks over at CRW that I wouldn’t have otherwise connected to whatsoever,” said Parshall. “We’re really excited to put a campaign together and put our issues together, like staffing on the retail side and air conditioning on the CRW side.”
Although Intelligentsia did not comment on specific allegations, the company sent In These Times the following statement: “We have been notified by the NLRB that IBEW Local 1220 has filed a Petition for Election seeking to represent certain Intelligentsia employees in Chicago for collective bargaining. As this is an active, ongoing matter, Intelligentsia will not comment.”
In These Times obtained an email the company’s President and CEO, James McLaughlin, sent to employees about the unionization effort on May 23. In the email, McLaughlin uses standard anti-union talking points, including referring to the union as a “third party,” while promising to run a campaign to dissuade workers from voting in favor of unionization.
“Between now and election day, Intelligentsia with share with you information — facts — about what having a union means for you, for your supervisors, and for the Company,” McLaughlin wrote. “We will explain why the Company prefers to deal with you individually and directly rather than through an outside third party who knows little about our business and our operations. Nor do we think that employees need to pay Local 1220 to represent them.”
Rizzo of IBEW Local 1220 said it was too early to know whether the company is hiring anti-union consultants, which Starbucks, Colectivo and many other U.S. employers have done when workers file for a union election. The election has not yet been scheduled, but a hearing with the NLRB is set for June 13 to move the process forward, according to Rizzo.
The Intelligentsia workers have received support and encouragement from democratic socialist Chicago Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa of the city’s 35th Ward. “I congratulate IC workers for taking this powerful first step towards winning a union contract. IC management should not fight the workers,” Rosa tweeted.
Rosa represents Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, which is home to one of the Intelligentsia cafes, as well as one of the Colectivo cafes that is already unionized, as well as one of the Starbucks locations scheduled to hold a union election next week. “Logan Square may soon have THREE union coffee shops,” the alderman wrote.
“Me and my coworkers love working at Intelligentsia. We love the neighborhoods where our cafes are, and we just want to make it better,” said Parshall. “Unions have been shown to improve retention for companies, and better retention for us would help us make and ship efficiently the best coffee in the country.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.