Coffee

Ballots Have Been Mailed as Baristas at Boulder's Brewing Market Work Toward Unionizing

Brewing Market employees started the process to join a union in January.
Brewing Market employees started the process to join a union in January. Courtesy of Nicholas Hochstedle
Brewing Market Coffee, which employs around 45 workers across five locations and a warehouse in Boulder, recently obtained enough signatures from those employees to hold a union election. On September 7, ballots went out by mail to all workers asking just one question: Would they like to be represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers & Grain Millers (BCTGM) Local #26 for the purpose of collective bargaining?

Employees must check yes or no and return ballots by September 28 to be counted. If a two-thirds majority answers yes, Brewing Market will become the second major locally owned business in Boulder to unionize, following Spruce Confections, which unionized in 2021.

Unions have been growing in popularity across the U.S.; a recent Bloomberg law analysis from the National Labor Relations Board found unions are having their best year since 2005, winning 641 workplace elections in the first half of 2022. Two hundred of those were at Starbucks locations alone. Approval ratings for unions are the highest they've been since 1965, with 71 percent of the general population in favor. Brewing Market has been in Boulder since 1977, but this is the first time in that period that its workers have sought to unionize.

For Salem Malfer, who's been employed with the company since March, joining the effort was a no-brainer. "Almost immediately, I noticed the lack of respect and safe working conditions that we were all exposed to, and knew that I wanted to help do something about it," says Malfer.
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Courtesy of Nicholas Hochstedle
In addition to a lack of transparency in how tips are calculated and paid out, employees claim that several Brewing Market locations have unsafe working conditions, including black mold and exposed electrical wires, both of which have been ignored by management despite attempts to get the problems fixed.

"We really just want to be treated with respect and equity in our workplace," Malfer explains. "We have expressed to management countless times that we wouldn’t start all this to bankrupt the business we work for; that would just be silly. We literally keep the business running, and yet are exploited and disrespected at every turn for our efforts. Most of us can’t afford to pay rent in the city we live in and barely make enough as full-time workers to get by. We want to be able to work shifts that don’t burn us out and work in a safe place with management that actually cares about our well-being."

In January, frustrated employees reached out to BCTGM Local 26 seeking guidance, and organizer Nicholas Hochstedler answered the call.

Hochstedler is no stranger to unionizing. Before he became involved with BCTGM two and a half years ago, he worked for a food and beverage servicer on a college campus. When employees decided they wanted to unionize, Hochstedler saw the benefits firsthand. “I went through the process from start to finish, and I saw health care became affordable, but I also saw unquantifiable change,” he recalls. “I got to see the change of, hey, they respect us now. We don’t get talked down to, etc. That’s what got me hooked.”

Now he uses his experience to help others through the arduous process of unionizing. "My job as the organizer is to help them through this process and teach them how to organize effectively, but as the workforce, they are the union. They organize it themselves," he says.

The first step was collecting enough signatures to start the process. "It’s not like your co-worker walks up to you and says, 'Our tips are being stolen, sign this petition,'" Hochstedler notes. "It’s a larger conversation... of things they want to see changed. Through organizing a union, you can reclaim some power in the workforce to create that change."
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Courtesy of Nicholas Hochstedle
Malfer saw the initial meetings as an opportunity to create a greater sense of community with fellow employees from across all of the Brewing Market stores. "It’s kind of depressing how easily service workers can form bonds over our shitty situations, but it’s been a running tradition at our weekly committee meetings to end with a game called Almost Funny, Really Sad, where we go around the room and tell stories that are just so ridiculous it’s hard to believe they actually happened," Malfer notes.

Since two-thirds or more of the employees agreed that they wanted to unionize, a formal vote by mail was the next step. This will confirm whether the employees want a specific union — in this case, BCTGM Local 26 — to represent them in collective bargaining. During this phase, workers along with union staff negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions with the employer. All parties are present at the table to develop a contract that addresses workers' concerns.

The bargaining process can be long, and depends largely on an employer's cooperation. Spruce Confections, which won its election last December, is only now nearing the end of negotiations, some ten months later. "The owner of Spruce fought us in the beginning, but once he sat down and met with us, he realized we have a lot in common, because we all want your business to succeed," says Hochstedler.

Results of the Brewing Market election won't be known until the end of September, but Malfer says there's already been a positive impact. "No matter how hard the owners have attempted to push anti-union propaganda, my co-workers have really stayed strong, and it’s been so nice to hear how excited all the customers are for us and how much support we have from the community," Malfer notes. "We’ve created a really strong community in our workplace that we wouldn’t have achieved without this union. Overall, I just want to see my co-workers happy and thriving, and every single worker deserves that."
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Danielle Krolewicz likes a good cup of coffee, a good book and a good deal — not necessarily in that order.