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One unionized. The other did not. How 2 Milwaukee cafés were changed by union drives

Scott Lucey owner of Likewise Coffee who’s staff unionized in 2020 stands for a portrait Thursday June, 9, 2022 Milwaukee. (Photos by Darren Hauck for NPR)
Scott Lucey owner of Likewise Coffee who’s staff unionized in 2020 stands for a portrait Thursday June, 9, 2022 Milwaukee. (Photos by Darren Hauck for NPR)

A generation ago, the words "union shop" were synonymous with auto factories and steel plants.

How the world has changed.

Today, coffee shops have become the face of a new labor movement as spirited union campaigns march through Starbucks stores from coast to coast.

Union elections have soared 70% in 2022 over last year, with Starbucks alone accounting for half of the growth.

But organizing in coffee did not begin at Starbucks. It kicked off several years ago in independently owned coffeehouses — the kind of small businesses one might think of as the least likely of workplaces to unionize, whose owners are a far cry from billionaire Howard Schultz.

In Milwaukee, two different union drives, one year apart, reveal the kind of power that unions can wield, whether the campaigns are successful or not.

In one case, the coffee company's founder sat down with his staff, heard their grievances, and made significant changes. His cafés have remained union-free.

In the other, an entrepreneur's long-cherished dream of owning his own café and running it his own way turned dark the day his employees voted yes to a union.

A certified letter brings a big surprise to a small business

Eric Resch got his start in coffee just out of college. He worked as a barista and then an assistant manager for Starbucks before investing in a coffee roaster and striking out on his own.

He founded Stone Creek Coffee in 1993 with a vision for his business as a force for good, as a company with an obligation to care for those around it — everyone from the farmers who grow the beans to the staff who brew the coffee.

Over the years, his business grew. But even when he was overseeing 13 cafés instead of one, Resch thought of himself as a boss who was accessible, someone who listened and learned.

In early 2019, something happened that shattered that view.

It started with the arrival of a certified letter from a local branch of the Teamsters, informing him that members of his staff had been organizing. They were asking for voluntary recognition of a union.

It was a jolting surprise.

"Oh wow. This is something I've never encountered before," he remembers thinking.

The union campaign started with one barista

The organizing at Stone Creek Coffee predated the Starbucks union campaign by more than two years.

But elsewhere in the service industry, workers were speaking out.

The Fight for $15, a movement of fast food workers demanding $15 an hour, made a big impression on Kellie Lutz, then a college student and part-time barista at Stone Creek. She reflected on her own wage at the time — $8.25 an hour before tips — and came to a frustrating conclusion:

"What I make can't even pay for two lattes."

It didn't make sense to her. After all, she thought, baristas are the ones who take on the stress when someone calls out sick, when the lines are long, or when the air conditioning isn't working.

"That all adds up over time," Lutz says.

Then a Facebook post from the Teamsters Local 344 popped up on her feed. She got in touch with an organizer there and began spreading the word across Stone Creek cafés about her union bid.

For Resch, it was a humbling moment. He thought he'd put systems in place at Stone Creek to capture all sorts of feedback from employees, good and bad. Now he realized, those systems were broken.

Cries of union busting as the boss pushes back

A week after receiving the certified letter, Resch began holding workshops. He wanted a chance to make things right — without a union.

"I stood before my team," he says. "I said, 'Talk to me. What is it that I missed? What is it that you all are asking for?'"

Resch believed strongly that a union had no place at Stone Creek. He feared it would interfere with relationships he'd built with his staff. So he said no to voluntary recognition and hired lawyers to help him get through the next steps.

For that, Resch was labeled a union buster. His workshops were disparaged as captive audience meetings.

It was an emotionally draining time. But he emerged from those workshops with a clear sense of what had gone wrong. People felt unseen and unheard. There were not enough ways for workers to get their ideas and perspectives across.

"Organizing as a union was certainly a way to do it, but there are certainly other ways to come at the problem," Resch says.

He was relieved that a majority of his employees agreed. The staff voted down the union, allowing him to take a deep breath and reflect.

"I learned a lot," Resch says. "I changed the company a lot."

A failed union drive nevertheless prompts change

Reach took four months to ponder what he'd heard from employees. Then he got to work.

He took significant steps to address some of the pressures staff faced on the job. He created two traveling positions — two baristas who are available to cover shifts in any Stone Creek café when someone calls out.

He also created new pathways for employees to speak up. He formed an employee council that he meets with every other month and holds regular company-wide meetings where anyone can take the floor. Now it's someone's job to report back on what's being done with the feedback collected.

Resch wants his employees to have a better understanding of the challenges he faces, including financial uncertainty. He'll open the company's books to any employee who asks. And whenever the business is facing a significant decision — such as ending its mask requirement — Resch asks the staff for input.

"I want them to understand that there's not exactly a right decision, but a decision has to be made, and I want their participation," he says.

More than three years on from the union drive, Resch is proud of the company that Stone Creek has become. And, he says, he's committed to getting even better.

Still, he wants his employees to remember that working there is a choice.

"I have a choice to run and own this company, and I will continue to do it as long as I love it, and I'm healthy," he says. "And they have a choice, whether this is a good environment for them to work in."

In 2020, a similar campaign, different outcome

Just across the Milwaukee River, less than a mile away, another union campaign the following year took a very different path.

For 12 years, Scott Lucey built up his coffee credentials as a barista and a trainer while working for a different Milwaukee coffee chain.

Lucey lived and breathed coffee, winning barista competitions and chairing the Barista Guild of America.

"I would tell people my inevitable end would be to own my own café," Lucey says.

In 2015, he made that happen. He partnered with two guys who were specialty coffee wholesalers in Viroqua, Wisconsin, several hours away. He borrowed large sums of money and put his own house on the line to open the café of his dreams.

A smooth start gives way to staff tension

Lucey was one of three owners, but the only one who worked in Milwaukee alongside the staff. It was important to him that the staff were happy. It was the vibe he wanted for his café.

"The first couple years... I'm pretty sure I had days where everyone liked me," he says.

But a few years ago came a turning point. Lucey had called a staff meeting to discuss work schedules. Given many of his employees were college students, he would ask them to put their availability in writing once their school schedules were set.

It didn't seem like a big deal, until one of his newer employees balked. They pressed Lucey on why they needed to sign such a document.

He tried to explain that working in the café is a commitment. When someone's availability is constantly changing, it creates scheduling problems and makes it harder to run the business. But he didn't force the issue. He didn't want a fight.

He stepped back and told the staff, "Fine, if you guys don't want to sign these, I'm not going to make you. I'm just trying to show you how important this is to me."

In the pandemic, discontent soared to new levels

The discontent that had been brewing among the staff only grew with the onset of the pandemic.

A couple of Lucey's employees felt underpaid, undervalued, and excluded from important decisions about how the café would operate amid COVID.

"I felt like I was drowning. I felt like we were all drowning," says Steph Achter, a barista. "We weren't getting the support we needed in so many ways. And it wasn't just 2020."

Lucey knew there was distrust, a lot of it directed at his business partners who were in a different part of the state. But he wasn't prepared for what would come next.

In the summer of 2020, Achter and a coworker presented the owners with some demands. "A more equitable work environment that promotes holistic wellness, fair wages, and a structure of accountability within its leadership team," they wrote in a document Achter shared with NPR.

"I felt like it was me kind of trying to reach out and be like, 'Help, please,'" Achter says.

But sales had fallen in the pandemic. Lucey was already paying himself less than he'd made at his old job. So the answer was no, not now.

The union election was decided by one vote

Achter turned to the Teamsters Local 344 — the same union that had attempted to organize Stone Creek Coffee a year earlier — and asked coworkers to sign union cards.

Lucey didn't know what to say, or what he could say. Under federal law, employers can't question employees about their union activities or make any promises.

"Like what if I say the wrong thing?" he recalls thinking.

Starbucks and Amazon have spent huge amounts of money fighting union campaigns. At Lucey's café, it was mostly on him. His business partners kept checking in on him, asking if he'd talked with the staff.

It was the last thing he wanted to do.

"I need to be having conversations with people about a contentious topic? No thanks! I'll pass. I want to brew coffee and dial in espresso," he thought at the time.

The staff asked for voluntary recognition of the union. He said no, let it go to a vote. That led to accusations of union busting.

On December 16, the votes were counted. The final tally: three to two for the union. One person didn't vote.

Days later, the owners closed the café indefinitely, citing issues due to the pandemic.

The following spring, Lucey bought out his business partners, a move the three owners agreed was better for everyone. He renamed the café Likewise and hired back staff. Under federal law, the union remained intact.

A union contract becomes a source of conflict

Working with the Teamsters, Lucey's six employees negotiated a contract that includes some of what they'd been seeking: One-month schedules posted 10 days in advance. A clause preventing Lucey from firing or disciplining anyone without just cause. A $20 monthly wellness stipend to cover things like yoga classes and bike share fees. All things Lucey says he largely supported.

But there are other parts of the contract he regrets agreeing to, including a 50-cent an hour raise every year. He doesn't think the business can afford it.

Most irritating to him is what he calls the red tape. The union contract dictates how much time he's allowed to spend behind the bar in his own café. And when he wants to make changes that affect the staff, such as extending store hours, he's supposed to negotiate it through the union, even after he's gotten the go ahead from everyone on his team.

"I don't want an additional contract giving me rules," says Lucey. "That's why I quit my job and started my own job, because I wanted to do things my way."

Achter, now the union shop steward at Likewise, understands his frustration — to an extent.

"I think it has to be very hard for him to feel like he has to let go of some control over his business," Achter says.

But the veteran barista believes having rules spelled out in a contract makes for a better working environment now that expectations are clear.

Achter has been holding Lucey to the contract, filing grievances whenever he skirts the rules. "After everything that we went through to get this first contract, I feel really invested in making sure it works."

Meanwhile, sales at Likewise are still down close to 30% compared to pre-pandemic times, and Lucey worries every day about whether the café will survive.

"The positive vibe in there is amazing, and it keeps me going," Lucey says. "But sometimes, I want to tell people — if only you knew."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.