Stone Creek coffee could have become the first wall-to-wall unionized coffee company in Wisconsin. What happened?
On Saturday, March 23, a group of around 45 people gathered around the gazebo at Zeidler Union Square to carry flags and banners and listen to a speech by a union representative. The setting was a symbol of Milwaukee County’s labor history, and what was unfolding could have been a new chapter in that story: the first wall-to-wall unionized coffee company in Wisconsin.
The employees of Stone Creek Coffee and their supporters marched the 900 feet from Zeidler Union Square to the company’s headquarters while chanting “I believe that we will win.” Stone Creek opened its first cafe in Milwaukee 25 years ago and currently operates 14 different cafes. The company added two new cafes in the last year, expanding into Chicago for the first time.
As the effort’s supporters rallied, the vote on whether to unionize was already underway, with two weeks left until the mail ballots were due from the 139 employees who were part of the potential bargaining unit.
Ultimately, the vote failed, 52-38. While the pro-union employees were able to sweep up support from some coworkers and the public, ultimately the majority of employees in the proposed bargaining unit believed that a union wasn’t right for them, with controversy occurring from both sides along the way. Here’s an inside look at what happened.
‘Why don’t we just unionize?’
Kellie Lutz, 23, a barista at Stone Creek’s Downer Avenue shop, began the slow process of trying to unionize six months before the vote. She noticed that the company was enacting policy changes without getting the input of their employees. “The company claims to really care for your word and that you always have the right to speak up as an employee, but then when you did speak up, it would go up a chain and you wouldn’t really hear from it,” she says. “So I’m like, why don’t we just unionize?”
She began to approach her co-workers to find out about their concerns about working at Stone Creek and ask if they had ever thought about unionizing. Eventually they began having secret gatherings off site.
Lutz found that the workers’ main complaint was being underpaid. “You make enough to survive if nothing goes wrong,” says Maria Brondino, who was a member of the union committee. “There have been times where I’m like, do I buy cold medicine or do I go grocery shopping this week?”
Other employee concerns about working conditions included unreliable hours, difficulty taking breaks during the work day, and difficulty with requesting off of work or using sick leave, Lutz says.
“If you’re with the company a certain amount of time, you will get like an eight-hour sick leave, but nobody’s actually going to cover your absence so you can take that,” Brondino says. “You’ll have a list of all the employees in the company and you have to text them all individually to get your shifts covered.”
A union was the best way to address those concerns, Lutz said at the March 23 rally: “We think that with this union backing and having secure, contract guarantee there will most likely be less turnover and more sense of security at your job to just get the basic tasks done and have basic respect as a worker with having those guaranteed hours and having more pay and having breaks.”
For Stone Creek’s part, co-owner Eric Resch told Milwaukee Magazine that the company has policies clearly laid out in its employee handbook that address the employees’ concerns. As to the pay concerns, Resch said Stone Creek determines its employees’ wages by benchmarking the pay rates of other companies in the industry.
“I’ve spoken pretty publicly and very openly about all of the issues that have been raised,” Resch said. “The company – whether we do it publicly, whether we do it in the form of a workshop talking about unions, or whether we do it six months from now – will continue to talk about those issues.”
Hot Coffee, Cold Feet
Stone Creek’s employees are far from the only ones in the industry seeing problems with its labor model.
Natalie Bauer has worked in the coffee and service industry for the last 15 years, most recently at Colectivo Coffee. “I think so many service industry jobs in general abuse the idea of someone’s time,” she says. “You’re being overworked and perpetually underpaid. The people who grow the coffee, the people who work behind the counter, the people who make drinks, everyone across the board needs to be paid more. I think unionizing will affect a lot of people.”
In her past jobs, Bauer says, she has had similar issues to the ones cited by some workers at Stone Creek. “This past winter, I went from being scheduled from 30 hours a week to 14 hours a week,” Bauer says. “No one can survive on 14 hours a week. And in the industry in general, I think there’s a lot of fear of not being able to have your shift covered because you’re afraid that there will be repercussions.”
Bauer says she also has been part of union conversations, though they never went anywhere. “I was involved,” she says. “I toyed with the idea of sticking it out a little while longer, just to see if it was a viable option.”
Behind Closed Doors, Out in the Open
The unionization effort at Stone Creek became public at the beginning of March. The employees had formed a union committee and a petition with signatures of one-third of the proposed bargaining unit. Kas Schwerdtfeger, the director of organizing from Teamsters 344, submitted the request for an election with the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency that enforces laws on rights to organize and unfair labor practices.
A flurry of social media activity followed. Stone Creek created an official post about the mandatory employee workshops to discuss labor unions, and comments in the threads accused Stone Creek of holding captive audience meetings. “I’m across the country and have never even heard of you. But now I know you’re anti-union,” one post read.
Stone Creek followed it up with a new post defending those meetings. “While we do not believe a union will benefit anyone at Stone Creek, the decision to move forward with a labor union, or to vote against the union, rests solely with our employees,” it read. Comments, both for and against the union, flooded in. “I am a huge fan of Stone Creek whatever the outcome and I think it’s great that they held these info workshops,” read one. Some former Stone Creek employees even created public confessional-style Facebook posts detailing experiences they had while working for the company.
Resch says that during the 12 hour-long workshops he encouraged his employees to do their own research into the process of unionization.
“At Stone Creek, we always have company meetings. That’s not unique, right? The fact that I brought together my team and talked about how does a union work, how would it work in the context of Stone Creek, and how is Stone Creek today and where is it headed, that’s no different than what I would do a year ago or a year from today,” Resch says. “I’m proud of the workshops we put together.”
On March 4, Stone Creek Coffee’s social media presence grew quiet. Another post wouldn’t arrive until Tuesday, April 2, the day of the mail ballot vote (which by coincidence was the same date as the local spring election). Around noon, Stone Creek announced the results in a post.
“With this vote it has been affirmed that the majority of those who voted believe that our company, and our relationships, are stronger without a labor union at Stone Creek,” the post read, signed by the co-owners of the company, Resch and his wife, Melissa Perez.
Despite the high-profile unionization campaign, it ultimately persuaded fewer than a third of Stone Creek employees in the potential bargaining unit. Christopher Schwab, a builder at Stone Creek, voted against the union for a variety of reasons. “In my experience, being able to bargain individually has been well received in the company,” says Schwab. “I can ask for what I feel I deserve and what I need, and generally those requests are certainly heard.”
Another issue included disagreements over how employees viewed the mandatory “Never Stop Learning” meetings that Stone Creek Coffee held during the unionization effort. Schwab says he felt the pro-union camp mischaracterized them as “intimidation meetings” while he felt they were purely informational.
Schwab and other employees say they have a positive relationship with Resch and Perez. “It’s very clear to me that they care about their employees and they want what’s best for them.”
While Schwab doesn’t think that collective bargaining is the best option for him and his co-workers, he still sees some of the concerns brought up during the effort as valid – particularly those of employees who were promised full-time hours and status that weren’t delivered. “I think something that’s clear is that there is miscommunication in places,” he says. “There are people that are concerned about things and the owners aren’t hearing it. I just don’t think that the union is the best solution for that.”
Schwab believes ownership truly did listen to their employees concerns. “Eric and the owners took notes on what people are concerned on and they’re finding solutions for those things,” he says. “Time will tell how much those things change here.”
Resch told Milwaukee Magazine after the vote that he and his wife see their crash course on unions, the process and how it could affect Stone Creek as a positive. “For most of us at Stone Creek moving forward there is a release in the sense that this is behind us and that it’s time to move forward in the company,” Resch says. “We are working to never stop learning and provide remarkable care.”
Lutz chose her words carefully while speaking about the union election results, sounding mournful. She was unsure of what the future would hold for her and the other employees that supported the union. She hoped that if Stone Creek Coffee employees experienced workplace issues going forward that they would still feel comfortable contacting her or the other union committee members for support.
“It was pretty disappointing seeing the outcome,” says Lutz. “Something I really reflected on is that I feel this union would have won if the owner remained neutral.”
However, Lutz believes the existence of the effort will bring about positive change at Stone Creek Coffee. “I hope that whatever changes the company makes from here on forward that they’re really just keeping workers in mind. I think that they’re going to be a lot more conscientious of that as the business continues growing.”