Chicago saw a wave of new unions form in 2022. Getting to the bargaining table is the next challenge.
As snow fell on the picket line outside a Bucktown Starbucks in November, striking unionized baristas kept warm with cups of Colectivo Coffee, which is brewed by members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a union that also represents baristas at Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee.
Two years ago, Starbucks, Colectivo and Intelligentsia weren’t unionized. But filings for new unions have swelled over the last couple of years as workers reevaluated their relationship with work during the pandemic while a tight labor market gave them more leverage in the workplace.
The Starbucks campaign in particular has spread like wildfire: The union won its first elections in December 2021 and now represents workers at nearly 270 stores nationwide, including about 10 in Chicago and its suburbs.
But it’s not just Starbucks: In Chicago, museum workers at the Art Institute, faculty and staff members at its affiliated school and employees at the Newberry Library have all unionized this year. So have workers at Howard Brown Health, budtenders at Zen Leaf cannabis dispensaries and booksellers at Half Price Books in Niles. Baristas at four La Colombe Coffee Roaster locations filed for union elections in December. Thousands of graduate students at Northwestern and the University of Chicago filed petitions within two weeks of each other in November.
For the hundreds of newly unionized workers in Chicago, the hard work has only just begun; now they must negotiate a first contract with their employers. Labor leaders see a contract as the gold standard for protecting workers’ rights and securing gains in areas like pay and benefits. But the process can take years.
Just over a third of all new unions secure a contract within a year, but another third still don’t have a contract after three years, according to research by Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
“The NLRB can force an election under our labor law, but the NLRB can’t force a contract,” Bronfenbrenner said.
Workers’ frustrations mount
At Starbucks, conflicts over bargaining came to a head in Novemberwhen workers at more than 100 of the company’s stores walked off the job, taking aim at what they described as the company’s failure to bargain in good faith.
“I’m more frustrated than I would have guessed,” said Teddy Hoffman, a shift supervisor at an Edgewater Starbucks that was one of the first in Chicago to unionize. “A lot of us have been sort of surprised by how brutal and kind of cunning the union-busting has been.”
Hoffman, a member of his store’s bargaining committee, said Starbucks representatives showed up to a bargaining session but left the table almost immediately because the union planned to allow members who could not attend in person to watch negotiations via Zoom.
“Lawyers showed up, they saw that we had our laptop open, and they walked outside. And that was kind of it for eight hours,” Hoffman said.
The coffee giant says it is bargaining in good faith and claims Starbucks Workers United is engaging in “ongoing misconduct” by allegedly unlawfully recording bargaining sessions, including in Chicago during negotiations with Hoffman’s store.
“We’ve come to the table time-after-time prepared to bargain in good faith only to be met with Workers United representatives who insist on broadcasting the sessions to unknown individuals not in the room and, in some instances, post recordings of the sessions online,” said Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull in a statement, adding that some excerpts of proceedings have been shared “broadly by individuals on social media.”
The union denies it has recorded bargaining sessions. Both the union and the company have filed unfair labor practices charges with the NLRB alleging misconduct during bargaining, including in Chicago.
On average, it takes workers 465 days to sign their first collective bargaining agreement after they unionize, a delay that is getting longer, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Law.
Bargaining can take a long time even if both a union and an employer are working in good faith as union members and managers get up to speed on what the law requires, said Robert Bruno, director of the labor studies program at the University of Illinois.
“They don’t have experience doing this before,” Bruno said. “It’s not a mature relationship.”
Another factor that can slow the process: Many employers simply don’t want to share power with workers, Bruno said.
“That is what a collective bargaining agreement is going to do. It’s going to compel the employer to give up some unilateral control over the labor force,” Bruno said.
Petitions for union representation to the National Labor Relations Board were up 53%. Chicago-area filings were up more than 17% over the prior year.
Bob Reiter, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said public support for unions was nothing new in the city.
“We’re a working-class city that has people across the income strata that have respect for collective voice and having representation in the workplace,” he said.
In what was touted as a historic win for organized labor, voters elected in November to add an amendment to the state constitution stating that workers have a “fundamental right” to unionize and collectively bargain with their employers.
The amendment prevents the passage of “right-to-work” laws, which can weaken private sector unions by allowing workers to refuse to pay the dues used to support collective bargaining and legal action.
Labor experts said that, depending on how the amendment is interpreted by courts, it could also expand labor rights by extending the right to collectively bargain to new groups of workers, such as farmworkers or gig workers, or by expanding the kinds of issues that can be subject to bargaining.
Labor board takes action
Beyond allegations that it is deliberately slow-walking bargaining, Starbucks has faced widespread allegations of lawbreaking by the union and in some cases by the labor board.
In Chicago, the labor board’s regional director has accused Starbucks of firing a worker in Wilmette for trying to unionize, disciplining a Hyde Park barista for testifying at a labor board hearing and illegally threatening and interrogating baristas at stores that were attempting to unionize.
Starbucks has denied those allegations; a hearing before an administrative law judge is scheduled for January.
“Starbucks informs and trains managers that no partner will be disciplined for engaging in lawful union activity and that there will be no tolerance for any unlawful anti-union behavior, if ever found to be true,” Trull said.
He declined to comment further on the Chicago-area labor board complaints.
Starbucks has also faced accusations of closing stores for union activity. The company announced it would close a store in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood shortly before it was set to begin bargaining in October, citing safety issues. Starbucks said employees at the store had reported a range of issues such as theft, vandalism, threats of violence and assault. Workers United slammed the decision as “union-busting.”
Barista Aryssa Burton agreed there were safety issues at the store but said other city Starbucks had safety problems, too — and they weren’t closed. Workers were suspicious of the intent behind the closure because Starbucks announced it so close to its bargaining date, she said.
“It’s about power,” Burton said. “It’s about capital.”
Negotiating as equals
Bargaining sessions at the Art Institute take place in the museum’s Modern Wing, in a meeting room overlooking Grant Park. Negotiations start after work and can last for hours, said Lorenzo Conte, an exhibitions project manager at the museum and a member of the workers’ bargaining committee.
“We get to see the city of Chicago go to sleep,” said Conte, who coordinates the debut of new exhibits at the museum, such as its Obama portraits and the Bisa Butler show. Since museum workers unionized in January, they’ve met with the museum’s management and its attorneys in about 20 bargaining sessions.
At the end of bargaining nights, Conte said, most bargaining committee members take public transit home. “Management hops in their cars in their parking spots right (outside) of the building,” he said.
The union has tussled with the Art Institute over adding positions to the unit and said management has sought delays, a claim the museum denies. In a statement, the Art Institute said it was “proud of the substantive progress that we have made so far” and looked “forward to continuing to bargain in good faith” with the union.
Unionizing has already changed things for workers at the museum, Conte said. The Art Institute of Chicago Workers United now represents more than 1,200 people, including staff and non-tenure-track faculty members at the museum’s affiliated school.
“There’s accountability that never existed,” Conte said. “We walk into that room as equals.”
When employers do not come to the table to bargain with workers, there is little the NLRB can do to compel them to do so, said Bronfenbrenner.
“The worst penalty they’re going to get is a piece of paper saying, ‘You are ordered to bargain in good faith,’” she said.
In December, the labor board issued such a decision when it ordered cannabis company Curaleaf to bargain with workers at a Chicago dispensary on Weed Street. Workers filed for an election with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881 almost two years ago and voted to unionize in a narrow election in March 2021.
“When you’re selling cannabis every day, and you’re ringing people up and they’re buying two vape cartridges and it’s costing like $150, you start to wonder why you are only being paid $16 an hour,” said Jake Lytle, who works at the Weed Street dispensary.
The NLRB found Curaleaf violated federal labor law by refusing to recognize and bargain with workers there, but the company is appealing the decision. Curaleaf had initially challenged the result of the election, which the union won by one vote, but the labor board later ruled in UFCW’s favor.
The ongoing state of legal limbo has impacted morale at the Weed Street dispensary, Lytle said, because workers lack the legal protections of a contract. Lytle said Weed Street workers have also seen the company treat them differently from workers at other stores that are not caught in litigation over their status.
After receiving a 50-cent merit raise earlier this year, Lytle makes $16.50 an hour. But in October 2021, he said, the company announced market adjustment raises for workers at other dispensaries, including nonunionized locations and a few where the company has recognized the union.
Lytle said he was set to make $18 an hour but was told workers at his store would not receive the raises, although they could get backpay after the labor board process is complete.
“It really does feel like just retaliation for having unionized,” Lytle said.
Curaleaf said it “vehemently denies” that market adjustments were not given to Weed Street workers as retaliation for union activity. The company declined to comment further on wages and raises. “We respect the voices of our team members and will negotiate with union leaders in good faith,” the company said.
Lytle said he still thinks it was the right decision to unionize, but he wants more support from his union. The local did not respond to a request for comment.
“If people are going to keep voting to join unions, those benefits are going to have to be apparent,” Lytle said.
One contract comes quickly
On Dec. 16, workers at four North Side Starbucks went on strike again, this time protesting the company’s alleged retaliation by closing union stores, a charge the company denies. The strike was a three-day effort by workers at dozens of unionized stores across the U.S.
On the same day, baristas at five Intelligentsia Coffee locations in Chicago ratified their first contract after less than two months of bargaining.
Intelligentsia baristas filed for representation with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in May and won an election in August.
“Our management really bargained in good faith and really wanted to get a contract done and finished with so that we could move on and grow the company,” said Jordan Parshall, a shift lead at Intelligentsia’s cafe in the Monadnock Building in the Loop.
In their contract, workers secured paid meal breaks, raises and additional vacation, said Parshall. The paid meal breaks alone are equivalent to raises of between 6% to 8%, he said.
“I want to have kids, I want to have a family and I want to be a good, generous member of my community,” Parshall said. “And now that I have this extra pay and this extra time, I’ll really be able to do that.”
IBEW business representative Brett Lyons praised the coffee company for bargaining in good faith.
“I wish I could tell you why that was so rare,” he said.