Intelligentsia Coffee workers vote to unionize at five Chicago locations

Workers at Chicago-based specialty coffee company Intelligentsia Coffee voted to unionize Monday, the latest in a series of union votes at coffee shops across the city in recent months.

The vote affects nearly 30 workers at Intelligentsia’s five Chicago cafes, including two in the Loop and one each in Lakeview East, East Ukraine Village and Logan Square.

Brett Lyons, trade representative for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1220, said the union hopes to organize the roughly 20 employees of the company’s West Town coffee roastery by the end of this year.

Intelligentsia becomes the second Chicagoland coffee chain represented by Local 1220, following Colectivo Coffee, where workers began negotiating their first contract this summer, the union said in a statement. Nearly 500 Colectivo Coffee workers in Chicago and Milwaukee are jointly represented by Local 1220 and Local 494 in Milwaukee, Lyons said.

Jordan Parshall, a shift leader at Intelligentsia’s cafe in the Monadnock Building in the Loop, said he briefly worked at Colectivo when he first moved to Chicago and was inspired by their union campaign. When a man wearing an IBEW cap entered the Monadnock store last year, Parshall asked if he could help Intelligentsia workers get in touch with someone from the union.

The man gave Parshall a number to call, and Intelligentsia employees applied for union representation in May.

“We just want the terms of our employment to be in a contract that is strong and secure, and every few years we know we can negotiate to make it even better,” Parshall said. “Right now, our company decides the terms of our employment, they decide how much vacation we get, they decide what our health care is. And we don’t have any tangible way of holding them accountable for those things.”

Ten out of about 27 eligible voters turned in ballots by mail, and nine out of 10 voted to join IBEW, said Kayla Blado, a spokeswoman for the National Labor Relations Board. There is no minimum voter turnout required to win an election, Blado said.

Parshall attributed the low voter turnout to some ballots being sent to old addresses where his co-workers no longer lived.

Monday’s election comes amid a revival of union activity across the country. Coffee shop unions in particular have gained strength this year, with Starbucks’ national union drive perhaps the most high-profile campaign.

So far, workers have unionized at more than 200 Starbucks locations in 36 states, according to late-July data from the NLRB. In Chicago, baristas at five Starbucks they have been unionized since May.

“I think a lot of it stems from the instability that many of us experienced when we were laid off from our jobs in March 2020,” said Parshall, who was laid off from his Minneapolis coffee shop job at the start of the pandemic.

In a statement, Local 1220 business manager John Rizzo said the union was “thrilled” by Monday’s election results.

“A collective bargaining agreement is one of the strongest tools that workers have. It gives employees the ability to make their voices heard at work,” said Rizzo. “Intelligencensia employees will now have a seat at the table and have a say in their employment and working conditions.”

Intelligentsia first opened in Chicago in 1995. In addition to its five Chicago cafes, the specialty coffee roaster has locations in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Austin.

“As we have done throughout the election process, and while certification of the NLRB election results is pending, our Chicago coffee shops are up and running and our employees are delivering great coffee to our customers every day,” said Lisa Strangis, Intelligentsia spokesperson, in one sentence.

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