Intelligentsia Coffee employees file petition to unionize Chicago Roastery and Cafes

Intelligentsia Coffee workers have filed a petition for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), joining a still-growing wave of labor organizing among coffee company employees locally and across the US.

The pro-union team from Intelligentsia’s six city cafes and its Chicago Roasting Works warehouse on the West Loop filed the petition in late May, calling for representation from Local 1220 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) – the same union it now represents. workers at Colectivo Coffee, the Wisconsin chain with five Chicago-area locations.

Intelligentsia employees have similar concerns as other organized coffee chains, including Starbucks and Colectivo, ranging from issues such as salaries, staffing, training and scheduling to safety and health protections, says John Rizzo, business manager at Local 1220. “There seem to be many universal problems within the coffee industry that [Intelligentsia workers] want to get it right,” he says. “They are treated as if they were invisible – [customers] no matter who you are behind the counter. It shouldn’t be like that with the administration either.”

Intelligentsia’s original cafe in Lakeview underwent a major renovation in 2013.
Barry Brecheisen / Chicago Eater

Warehouse employees are particularly concerned about the lack of air conditioning in their workspace as hot summer weather approaches, as well as the need for an air filtration system, says Rizzo. Such systems are needed to mitigate the impact of diacetyl, a chemical that occurs naturally in unflavored coffee as a byproduct of the roasting process that scientific studies have linked to debilitating lung disease among those exposed for long periods of time.

Founded in 1995, Intelligentsia Coffee opened its first coffee shop in Lakeview the same year. It has since added two cafes in the Loop, as well as outposts in Wicker Park and Logan Square. The brand is among the most popular and well-known specialty coffee roasters in the country and has cultivated a reputation for strict standards among its baristas.

That industry stature was a major draw for barista Jordan Parshall, 25, who moved from Minnesota to Chicago in 2021 and sought employment at Intelligentsia’s cafe in the Monadnock building on the Loop. He’s been working there for about a year now. After a chance meeting with an IBEW member in October 2021, Parshall and his colleagues began organizing, largely inspired by the union’s victory in the Colectivo two months earlier. Between 40 and 50 Intelligentsia workers will be eligible for union representation, he says.

“You have to remember that almost everyone who works in food service lost our jobs in March 2020,” says Parshall. “When that happened, we realized that there was no one taking care of us. It is important that there is this union so that they can be that person who supports you, who will fight for your job, benefits and salaries.”

A café-bar and a cafe.

In 2013, the company launched a cafe in Wicker Park.
Barry Brecheisen / Chicago Eater

The election date is not yet set, but if the company decides to object, the parties will attend an NLRB hearing on Monday, June 13, says Rizzo. An election date would then be set within 30 days of that hearing.

Intelligentsia representatives did not respond to Eater’s request for comment on the filing. Company President and CEO James McLaughlin wrote to workers on May 23 in an email reviewed by Eater that the terms of employment would remain unchanged in the run-up to the election, but stated that management “prefers to deal with you individually. and directly, rather than an external third party who knows little about our business and operations.”

It remains to be seen whether management will take the same approach seen at Colectivo, where the company’s leadership hired a “union avoidance” firm, described by critics as busting unions, in an effort to nullify employee organizing efforts.

For Parshall’s part, he hopes management will see that the union campaign was born out of workers’ desire to improve Intelligentsia, not tear it down. “There are problems, but overall we love working for Intelligentsia and we really bought into the mission, which is to make the best coffee for the best places,” he says. “We think this is a way to not only make our lives easier as union workers, but also make life easier for our managers and improve the situation of the company as a whole.”

53 E Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60601
312 920 9332

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