The state of today’s labor market, amid lingering uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic, has businesses across many industries bending over backward to hire and retain staff. Whether in the form of signing bonuses, hourly wage increases or remote work flexibility, the pandemic has put the onus on employers to take better care of their people.
For the hard-hit service and hospitality sector, the past 18 months has shone a spotlight on a shaky revenue model that has contributed to a standard of low pay and workplace disparities. As a result, some workers exited the industry and have not returned, leaving operators in the lurch as business activity returns to pre-pandemic levels.
“There’s a lack of people willing to work in the same low-wage, no benefits, uncertain and chaotic jobs and labor markets – it shouldn’t surprise anybody. What’s surprising is that it didn’t explode earlier,” said Peter Rickman, president of the Milwaukee Area Service & Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH).
In the past couple of years, employee-led union campaigns have popped up at food service establishments across the country, including Nani’s Kitchen, an Indian restaurant in Rochester, New York; Spot Coffee in Buffalo, New York; Tartine Bakery in California; Cork & Fork in Pennsylvania; and Slow Bloom Coffee Roasters in California.
Locally, a group of workers at Milwaukee-based Colectivo Coffee have unionized under the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 494. In August, the National Labor Relations Board completed the vote count, with Colectivo workers approving a proposal to unionize by a 106-to-99 vote. The move to unionize was opposed by Colectivo’s owners, but they have pledged to “respect the rules and bargain in good faith.”
Meanwhile, another local employer is looking to circumvent the ongoing workforce challenges by embracing employee unionization. Earlier this month, entertainment venue and eatery Bounce Milwaukee reopened after an 18-month shutdown – this time as a union shop.
The business’s owners, Becky Cooper and Ryan Clancy, were the ones pushing the unionization effort and actively sought union representation for their employees – a rare move for an employer and one driven by their concerns over how workers across the service sector industry were treated, even prior to the pandemic.
Under what was announced in July as a “landmark” labor and workforce agreement, Bounce Milwaukee has granted union representation to its employees through MASH, which also represents service employees at Fiserv Forum and Deer District.
In return, MASH has helped the business staff up by funneling qualified candidates through a digital hiring hall. Over the course of a couple weeks, the business was fully staffed with 15 employees, mostly new hires.
The option to join a union was a huge draw for many who applied, along with an increased hourly wage to $15, said Cooper.
“We got inundated with applications,” she said, adding that all but one candidate showed up to their scheduled interview, and almost everyone who came in for an interview was hired.
“Even applicants for the general manager position, who wouldn’t be part of the bargaining unit, were really excited and enthusiastic about working for Bounce with a union,” she said. “I think it’s indicative of people who want to be in the service industry. They are looking for an employer who they know is going to be fair, is going to take any issues seriously, and for those management applicants … we have a structure in place for handling difficult issues through the union. I think it makes their job easier.”
The 14 employees eligible to be part of the bargaining unit all signed their union membership cards prior to Bounce’s reopening. From there, the plan was to sit down as a full staff to draft a contract for negotiation and likely swift ratification by Cooper.
Despite its early success, Bounce’s move to unionize hasn’t had much luck drumming up support – or even dialogue – from other local business owners. Cooper has developed relationships with many local restaurant owners who are on a similar page when it comes to taking care of their employees and addressing workplace disparities. But when Bounce announced its partnership with MASH and later shared its progress via social media, Cooper said they heard radio silence from their local industry peers.
“We see other people in the industry, ethical employers, moving to the One Fair Wage practices and raising their pay,” Cooper said, but shrinking margins – due to rising food costs and surging demand from customers – as well as lingering uncertainty about the pandemic likely stand in the way of considering the same path.
Taking the leap to unionize was scary for Bounce Milwaukee, too, but someone had to do it first, she said.
“I do want to open people’s eyes to the fact that this is a great way to address these issues … I’m hoping that in a year when we say, ‘hey, look how great this has worked,’’ then we’ll start having the conversation. Maybe we need to be that example,” said Cooper.
Since the announcement that Colectivo Coffee employees voted to unionize, organizers have fielded a national response. Groups of workers from across the U.S. have reached out with questions about the organizing process and how to start their own campaigns.
It’s a different story locally.
Hillary Laskonis, a barista at Colectivo’s Humboldt Avenue location and employee organizer, said she doesn’t know of any Milwaukee-area workers that have reached out. Hesitancy to join a union, whether it’s the employees within her own organization or others, may in part be due to the nature of the job.
“In industries like ours where there is a transient work population, I think that does end up creating a barrier for workers organizing,” she said.
But she hopes efforts to make Colectivo into what would be the largest cafe workers union in the country, according to IBEW, will spark more union momentum among local service workers.
“It would be phenomenal to have other local companies approach us and also take on unionization at their workplace,” said Laskonis. “If more workers chose to unionize, I think that would benefit a lot of vulnerable populations and the community at large.”
Unionizing is not a one-size-fits-all solution to ongoing labor issues, says Kristine Hillmer, president and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, which does not take an official stance on unions.
“We appreciate that each operator has a choice on how best to run their business and interact with their employees. … Regardless of their status, we encourage our operators to build an internal culture so they become a preferred employer for those seeking jobs. This also is key for retaining their current employees who are a valued part of that culture and team,” Hillmer said in an email.
Beyond the long-standing division over labor unions, Rickman envisions a world where employers across the service sector establish and adhere to common standards for all employees, regardless of part-time or full-time status – including centralized hiring and training pipeline, benefits, and enforcement of set standards.
“Let businesses compete on everything else other than how much they can sweat labor costs down,” he said.
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