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Café Workers Hope Their Unionization Shows Others In Service Industry What's Possible

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A Milwaukee-based coffee company could become the largest such chain in the country to unionize after employees recently voted in favor of forming one. This comes as Starbucks employees in one New York town have announced their own union efforts. As Teran Powell of member station WUWM reports, the Milwaukee cafe hopes other service workers keep the trend going.

TERAN POWELL, BYLINE: SPoT Coffee in Buffalo, N.Y., currently holds the title of being the largest unionized cafe in the country with around 130 members. But Colectivo Coffee could take that spot after a year's worth of organizing efforts ended with a union being voted in. The company has 20 locations in Milwaukee, Madison and the Chicagoland area, with more than 400 employees. Workers campaigned as the Colectivo Collective. Hillary Laskonis, a barista who's been with the company for four years, is thrilled with the result.

HILLARY LASKONIS: I think we're all kind of of the mind that whatever it takes to see this thing through, we're willing to do it because we've seen how powerful a union can be in protecting workers.

POWELL: Laskonis says employees want safer working conditions and more support for management. But Colectivo's owners aren't happy about the organizing results. In an open letter to customers, they expressed disappointment but agreed to bargain in good faith. More employers in the service sector have been agreeing to negotiate with their workers. That's according to Saru Jayaraman, who heads the group One Fair Wage. She says with worker shortages looming, employers can't afford not to listen to their workers.

SARU JAYARAMAN: We did a survey of 3,000 workers across the country. Fifty-three percent of workers who remain in the industry right now say they're leaving, and 80% say the only thing that would make them go back is a livable wage with tips on top, which means we have two choices. We can either raise the wage - we can either recognize what workers are demanding, or we can cut the industry in half.

POWELL: In Buffalo, on the same day Colectivo workers won their vote, 50 Starbucks employees announced their union campaign. Katie Cook, a shift manager at Starbucks in Cheektowaga, N.Y., says the company refers to employees as partners. So...

KATIE COOK: We want Starbucks to make good on that promise and to treat us more like a partner. We want to sit at the table with them. The table that they sit at was partially built off of our backs, of our labor. And we believe that we deserve to have a louder voice.

POWELL: Starbucks spokesman Jory Mendes says the company firmly believes its work environment and competitive benefits makes unions unnecessary.

JORY MENDES: We respect our partners' right to organize but believe that they would not find it necessary given our pro-partner environment.

POWELL: John Jacobs is the assistant business manager with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union Colectivo joined. He says many concerns that service workers had prior to the pandemic were exacerbated by it. Lots of these workers risked exposure to COVID-19. Some were laid off, and many lacked hazard pay or sick leave.

JOHN JACOBS: It just came to a boiling point through the pandemic and got really magnified that the service industry folks looked at - you know, one, they could leave and look for another career. Or, two, let's take a look at other opportunities here.

POWELL: And Jacobs says Colectivo workers chose the latter. They now await union certification, and many hope their effort is an example for what's possible for other service industry workers.

For NPR News, I'm Teran Powell in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF AXEL BOMAN'S "BARCELONA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.