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The slow drip of Madison’s coffee-shop unions

Successful organizing efforts at Colectivo and a downtown Starbucks set the stage for a long-term struggle.
A photo shows the sign in front of Colectivo's Monroe Street store.
The Colectivo on Monroe Street is one of three in Madison. Workers voted in 2021 to form the nation’s largest coffee shop union. Photos by JT Cestkowski.

Successful organizing efforts at Colectivo and a downtown Starbucks set the stage for a long-term struggle.

Workers at four Madison coffee shops face a long uphill battle ahead as they negotiate their first union contracts following successful organizing efforts over the past year.

All three of the city’s Colectivo locations and the Starbucks on the Capitol Square are local examples of a burst of barista unions cropping up across the country involving hundreds of stores.

Proponents of unionizing coffee shop staff point to myriad benefits that unions offer, chiefly the ability to collectively bargain for better pay and benefits. Unions have also historically served as powerful political forces capable of advancing workers’ rights, leading the charge for concepts taken for granted today, such as weekends off and the eight-hour workday.

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Despite its progressive self-image and its outsized array of restaurants and bars, Madison lacks any major presence of service sector unions. Baristas may be leading the charge toward a brighter future wherein the community actually embodies the values it claims to hold.

Over the summer, Madison saw two coffee shops deliver vastly different results in union elections.

In the first instance, the Capitol Square Starbucks’ staff voted 15 to one in favor of unionizing. At the time, it seemed like it would be the first in a line of Madison area Starbucks to organize, signifying the local arrival of a nationwide wave of unionization.

Those prognostications proved false—at least for the time being—when baristas at a Fitchburg location rejected joining a union by a vote of 21 to one. The election’s result so discouraged the organizing effort that the union at its center, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1473, withdrew petitions for union votes at two other local Starbucks locations, one on University Avenue near Hilldale Shopping Center and another in Monona.

In a press release after the announcement of the failed union vote in Fitchburg on July 11, UFCW 1473 President Jake Bailey called foul on the vote.

“However, it is not surprising given the vicious anti-union program that these workers were subjected to and the unfair, illegal termination of our active organizing committee at a neighboring store,” Bailey wrote. “These Starbucks workers here in Wisconsin, like many others across the country, have faced relentless interrogations, demeaning threats about being stripped of their benefits, and countless hours of falsehoods from the anti-worker consultants that Starbucks has hired to spearhead their union-busting campaign.”

The Capital Times reported at the time that Starbucks denied Bailey’s allegations. UFCW 1473 did not return multiple requests for engagement with this story.

Former Starbucks workers elsewhere have accused the company of firing them for organizing. The accusation has become common. In at least one instance, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) brought legal action against the company for terminating staffers who advocated for unionization.

The vanguard in Madison’s service industry

The most recent spate of organizing in Madison’s coffee shops began in 2019 with a push by workers for the Milwaukee-based Stone Creek Coffee to unionize.

At the time, Madison had one Stone Creek location along East Washington Avenue. (It’s now a location of the expanding but troubled Grace Coffee Co.)

The effort saw supporters of unionization march through Milwaukee’s streets in an attempt to drum up support.

Eric Resch, Stone Creek’s founder, gave an interview to NPR after the election and described feeling surprised by his staff’s desire to organize. He held a meeting with workers and asked adults he paid $8.25 per hour, “What is it that I missed?”

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The issue went to election in the spring. All rank-and-file workers for Stone Creek could participate, including those in the Madison store.

Of the 139 eligible employees across the company, 90 voted in the union election, with 38 siding in favor of unionizing and the remaining 52 opposed, according to records from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The records do not specify how many votes came from the Madison location.

Madison’s lone Stone Creek Coffee shop closed just a few weeks later at the end of June. A post on the company’s Facebook page hinted at a reason for the closure: 

“This year in particular, we have learned a great deal about the challenges that face us over the next 25 years of Stone Creek Coffee. We believe that to be successful over that time we need to start by strengthening our core.”

Whether or not Stone Creek closed the store in response to unionizing efforts, the timing was certainly interesting.

A first victory at Colectivo

Baristas seeking better benefits would wait two years after Stone Creek closed before celebrating their first win.

Already overshadowed by the much larger movement to organize Starbucks workers, Colectivo (another Milwaukee-based franchise) grabbed headlines in 2021 with its union election. The vote spanned all of the brand’s stores, which included several locations in Madison and the Chicago area.

The company pushed back hard against unionization. Workers from all Colectivo locations had to attend captive audience meetings, mandatory gatherings where employers make presentations on unionization.

Zoe Muellner, a worker at a Chicago Colectivo location during the unionization push, who now serves on the union’s bargaining team, recalls that the captive audience meetings included misleading information that implied unions are unpopular. In fact, polls have found broad and increasing support for unions in the US.

Muellner says that the company held multiple rounds of captive audience meetings—some attended by management, others not. A few stores received individual visits from presenters while others attended large gatherings at theaters that Colectivo rented out.

Colectivo workers would vote by the narrow margin of 106 to 99 in favor of unionization with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, making theirs the largest coffee shop union in the country.

The union and the company are now at the bargaining table working toward their first contract. Muellner declined to reveal any specifics of the negotiations so far, but she did say that the two camps have agreed on some items. The devil, however, is in the details and the nitty-gritty issues, such as the specifics of daily pay rates, remain on the to-do list.

Ownership has not yet attended the bargaining meetings, opting instead to send proxies: a lawyer and a member of human resources. Muellner says this practice has slowed the proceedings as the company’s decision makers are not present to directly respond to union proposals.

“So, we still got a long way to go,” Muellner says. 

Colectivo workers helped lead the charge in a mass of union votes at coffee chains across the country. The highest profile of these came in Buffalo, New York a few months later as baristas at a Starbucks became the first of the omnipresent chain to successfully unionize. The next year, the momentum would rebound back to the Madison area, emboldening workers on the Capitol Square to follow in Buffalo’s footsteps.

Madison’s Starbucks union

First discussions about forming a union at Starbucks’ 1 East Main Street location, directly across the street from the Capitol, began prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. But no serious organized effort gathered steam until January of 2022, after Starbucks rolled back additional benefits it afforded workers near the onset of the pandemic.

Employees contacted Starbucks Workers United, an extension of the Service Employees International Union, which has helped organize many Starbucks locations across the country.

Workers United has opted to take a store-by-store approach to unionizing Starbucks, rather than conduct larger elections spanning multiple locations at once. The strategy has the benefit of keeping the effort in the headlines, celebrating a continuous string of victories and inspiring more baristas to push for their own unions. But it also leaves labor reporters and other observers to the tedium of checking each week to see if Sun Prairie Starbucks workers have filed for a union election with the NLRB.

A photo shows the exterior of the Starbucks location on the Capitol Square in Madison. Visible in the background is the Wisconsin State Capitol dome and a few pedestrians lingering near a food truck.
Starbucks at 1 East Main St., directly across from the Capitol, is the chain’s only unionized shop in the Madison area. 

While Workers United offered strategic support in organizing the Capitol Square Starbucks, employees are quick to note that they took ownership of the effort and would have persevered even without a national network.

“But it’s also been really, really cool knowing that this would have happened no matter what, even without, I think, the amazing support Workers United has given us,” says Evan McKenzie, an employee intimately involved with the union drive. “We made it happen from in here, which is really cool.”

McKenzie says rising rents, job security concerns, and healthcare motivated him and his co-workers to unionize.

A Starbucks worker is shown standing outside the chain's Capitol Square location, wearing a green apron and smiling toward the camera.
Evan McKenzie and his coworkers voted by a 15 to one margin to form a union at their Starbucks on the Capitol Square as a way to fight for higher wages and better benefits.

While organizers in other parts of the country have alleged incidents of illegal union busting by Starbucks and aggressive, but legal, anti-union tactics in the workplace, McKenzie says that the mass of other stores filing for elections afforded safety in numbers for union sympathizers.

Aside from a single poster that McKenzie says appeared in the store’s back room, the location cruised to unionization without much fuss from corporate or store management. McKenzie says that while other stores had to attend captive audience meetings, the Capitol Square location never did, because the presenters were so booked full having to go to other locations. But so far, this store is the one and only Madison-area location to join the national sweep of Starbucks unionizations.

National trends and local pressures

Ask Michael Childers, a professor and department co-chair in UW-Madison’s School for Workers, whether the national unionization trend has taken hold in the area’s coffee shops and he will equivocate.

“[In] every one of these situations, there’s similarities, there’s themes and patterns on the macro level, but they all kind of do have their own arc too,” Childers says.

Childers stresses that workers’ reasons for organizing are specific to the internal dynamics of shops holding elections. It’s only when one zooms out and considers the nation’s many union drives together that trends reveal themselves. 

Childers does speculate that the pandemic played a role. In many instances, management gave workers extra benefits that the employees realized their employers could have provided all along. In others, ownership forced staff to weather the pandemic without additional resources, making the latter group feel hung out to dry, despite claims of workplace “family” or similarly aspirational, but ultimately meaningless, prattle.

Both McKenzie and Muellner cite the pandemic among their reasons for supporting a union. They also say that informal discussions of unionizing began earlier and the response to COVID-19 served as a catalyst.

While Madison’s Colectivo locations and the Capitol Square Starbucks saw their union momentum pick up in the midst of the pandemic, they also had their own reasons for unionizing.

McKenzie stressed the importance of rental prices on the Capitol Square Starbucks staff’s decision to unionize. The average rent in Madison has risen eight percent over the last two years to $1,410, an increase of over $100 since the start of the pandemic, according to data from Zillow analyzed by The Capital Times. (An entire novel could be written on Madison’s housing shortage, but this story is unfortunately limited in its scope to the income part of the equation and how it strains service workers. You’ll need to look elsewhere for deep dives on sexy mixed use zoning policies.)

Adding to pressures on workers is the store’s location in the middle of downtown, where rents trend higher than the city average.

These factors can certainly strain a new Starbucks employee making $15 per hour.

Childers echoes this point in his analysis. “People are having to work harder and harder, especially at the lower end of the economic scale, to just try to stay housed, to try to stay clothed,” he says.

At Colectivo, Muellner says discussions of unionizing prior to the pandemic centered on staffing issues, especially around winter holidays. Safety and equipment maintenance also played a role.

Endless organizing

Despite votes clearly favoring unionization, organizers say their work in coffee shops cannot end there. 

Historically transient jobs like barista mean that a workforce that voted just a few months ago to unionize could look quite different today, as union sympathizers leave and the store hires new workers who may not yet have an informed opinion on the issue.

This conundrum reared its head in the case of Colectivo’s election. The original ballot count, according to Muellner, was a tie—99 in favor to 99 against. 

Colectivo challenged the validity of ballots submitted by employees who had left the company between casting their votes and the tally. The NLRB held a mail-in election for Colectivo, meaning workers had three weeks to fill out and submit their ballots.

The NLRB ruled in favor of the union, allowing and counting the disputed ballots. All were in favor of unionization.

Now with both Colectivo and the Capitol Square Starbucks at the negotiating table for their first union contracts, organizers need to keep up momentum to achieve maximum leverage in their bargaining positions.

To that end, on August 11, representatives of the Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans and the South Central Federation of Labor went into all three Madison Colectivo locations and distributed flyers to the staff, informing them of the status of contract negotiations.

Several of the interactions between the organizers and staff began with the basics: “Hello, did you know Colectivo staff are forming a union?”

A representative from the Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans updates a Colectivo worker on the latest efforts in contract negotiations during an organizing effort on August 11. 
A representative from the Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans updates a Colectivo worker on the latest efforts in contract negotiations during an organizing effort on August 11. 

The organizers won several small victories. After the action at one location, the employees hung one of the flyers on a door.

Muellner, a member of the union’s bargaining committee, says that a Madison Colectivo employee contacted her group after the flyer handout to inquire about getting involved with the negotiations.

But unionization can also draw new workers like Zack O’Connor, who started at the Capitol Square Starbucks in August.

O’Connor had worked a string of service sector jobs over the years. She had considered working for Starbucks in the past, but never tried until after the workers approved a union.

“Once it was unionized, I was like, ‘Well, you know, if it’s unionized, I can take the health care that they’re already giving, and we’re probably going to see improvements,'” O’Connor says.

O’Connor, who is transgender, appreciated Starbucks’ health insurance plans covering gender-affirming care.

She believes that the presence of a union could further expand transgender health care coverage and offer workplace protections.

O’Connor knew some of the staff at the store prior to applying for her current job and even supported the unionization vote. Her interactions made her aware that she would step into a welcoming space, but she feels the presence of a union offers even more protections.

“I’m always a little worried that someone is just going to fire me just because I’m trans or because I don’t get along with people because they’re transphobic, or whatever, but I go to the store where I know that the people are already cool, and they’re unionized,” she says. “If something bad were to happen, or I were to be mistreated, or whatever, I know that they would not only stand up for me, but, if it got bad enough, they would even be able to organize and strike for me.”

The battles yet to come

While the spate of union victories in Madison coffee shops of late have buoyed hopes of winning better pay and working conditions, organizers admit a long road splays out ahead for those who dream of turning the service industry into a long-term career path on par in the American consciousness with factory or office work.

Muellner sees the union bargaining process as a solid foundation upon which to build that future.

“The amount of money people are making versus how much they need to pay in bills, rent, etc., is bananas,” she says. “So being able to actually earn a decent wage from a service-industry position is freaking major.”

O’Connor echoes the sentiment on pay, arguing that workers should all earn a “living wage” which she estimates at around $25 per hour, a 66 percent increase over Starbucks’ current base pay rate.

Unions rarely win such aggressive raises on their first contract, but with each successive negotiation they can push for greater progress. Collectively fighting for higher pay is preferable to sitting back and hoping for an employer to feel generous.

O’Connor further imagines a future where the stress of the service industry recedes. During busy periods, it’s easier to make mistakes in assembling orders, and staff repeatedly deal with angry customers. Unions could make these rushes less exasperating by pushing for greater staffing, another area unions commonly tackle in contract negotiations.

O’Connor also wants to see reforms to the booming sector of food-delivery startups.

Apps like EatStreet, founded in Madison, UberEats, and GrubHub pay food delivery gig workers per delivery rather than hiring them as full-time staff. The dynamic puts a strain on the delivery workers to complete as many deliveries as possible to make their effort worth it.

When online orders through these services pile up at a coffee shop, baristas feel the wrath of delivery workers who are waiting on orders.

Sit in the Capitol Square Starbucks on even a slow Labor Day morning, as I did last Monday, and you can count multiple delivery workers rushing in and out of the store, stopping for only a fraction of a second to snatch drinks off the counter.

A small union at a single Starbucks location is unlikely to bring about the systemic change needed to address such large market trends and forces. But every union victory does give more bargaining power to workers, especially when unions themselves unionize through entities like the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions that claims to represent some 12.5 million workers, or close to 4 percent of the U.S. population.

For organizers like Muellner, the dream of achieving broad-based change requires large-scale action that no worker can achieve alone.

“I would just encourage people to fight for what’s right and what they believe in,” she says. “‘Solidarity’ is such a buzz word in unionizing but when you feel it, you really understand why.”

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