Illustration of coffee beans with graphic text that reads "Spilling The Beans A Conversation About Coffee Shop Unionization"
graphic by Beth Martini

by Jason Flynn

Workers at Peet’s Coffee stores in Chicago, Ill. expanded protests of the company which have been ongoing since September 2020 with the help of organizers from the Fight for 15 campaign. On April 15, Chicago members of the Restaurant Organizing Project joined a Peet’s workers’ strike.

Peet’s is part of a wave of coffee shop organizing that has been rolling across the US since at least 2019, including wins, losses, and draws at stores like Cake Life in Philadelphia, Stone Creek in Milwaukee, and Colectivo which has stores in three cities. 

I caught up with Charlie Ulch, a 24 year-old Downers Grove native, to find out more about the Peet’s workers campaign. Charlie has been working at Peet’s for five years, primarily at locations in Downers Grove and downtown Chicago. 

[The conversation has been edited for brevity and style]

Jason Flynn  

How did the walkout/strike come about? What were some of the things leading up to it, and what were some of the things that y’all have tried that led to doing a bigger action like a strike?

Charlie Ulch  

There’s a few different things. In the city they have sick pay and hazard pay, and that was paid out to all the employees without their consent. 

when we came back no one really had any leftover funds available in case they did catch COVID, or anything like that.

So, we were trying to get back some of the sick pay that we were given out. On top of that, we were also trying to get an extra $2 an hour in hazard pay for working during the pandemic, having to constantly interact with the public, who may or may not be COVID contagious That was one of our big asks. Another ask was having a seat at the table, just being able to have a direct line to management in terms of the proceedings, and going ons of what happened in our store, having a say in the process when it comes to reopening and precautions necessary. Basically, a union or bargaining rights. We were looking to have a seat at the table.

JF

Going into the pandemic, were there already issues at the stores that were being floated, things you were looking to get solved, but weren’t happening that led to the action, or do you feel like it was sparked mainly by the pandemic?

CU

I feel like a lot of that was caused by the pandemic. I feel like a lot of these issues kind of existed before, but there wasn’t really any stress on people that made them recognize it. So I feel like the pandemic kind of woke people up to the issues that were going on in the store in terms of hours and labor and things like that. And then just kind of like exacerbated the problems to a point where we didn’t really have any other choice I feel. 

JF

When y’all sort of got backed into that corner was reaching out to organizers the first thing that you did or did y’all take a lot of steps before you got to the point of being like, ‘Alright, let’s talk to someone about trying to get organized and help from the outside’? 

CU  

Yeah, we were actually super lucky because it started mostly at the East 8th location. The way we were coming back [from quarantine] wasn’t the best, and a lot of people were kind of upset with how hours were being distributed and the way Peet’s was handling the pandemic. I think it was a coworker of mine who said that they knew someone who organized, and that they would reach out, because you know we were talking about union stuff, but we didn’t really know how to. And, luckily, they had this contact. They just kind of linked us up, and that’s kind of how things started. It started real slow, too. At first it started with just a simple letter to corporate with a little petition saying, ‘hey here’s the things we want,’ and hoping that we could get it.

When they didn’t really acknowledge that, or give us the things we were asking for we were kind of left with no choice but to try to escalate things.

Because no one likes walking out. No one likes going out on strike.  So we were kind of forced into that situation, right. 

JF  

You said it started relatively slowly, and I’m assuming y’all met a few times. How receptive were your coworkers at the different stores to working on this project?

CU  

There was kind of a range of thoughts, really. A lot of people were on board, but there was definitely a decent amount of people who was just really nervous about doing it. They were scared that, you know, they could face some kind of retaliation, or that it would affect their ability to, I guess, move up within the company. And so, it took a lot of talking to and discussion to let them know that things would be okay, and, you know, they didn’t really have anything to fear, and that they could join us and it would be in their best interest. But it was definitely difficult, especially since, because of the way things operated, it was hard to get a lot of other stores on board, or to even know what was going on. [The company was] able to kind of keep a tight lid on what was going on at the various stores. When we finally did reach out to more of those locations they basically said that they heard rumblings, but they weren’t really sure what was going on. They heard some talk of a union. So it was a lot of clearing up the air about what was actually going on, and dispelling various rumors and misinformation that, you know, store managers and things like that were kind of spreading.

Luckily, we were able to reach out to other coworkers. I actually kind of ended up driving around to other stores, and just popped in to give my fellow coworkers information and phone numbers of our organizer and stuff like that. So it definitely did take a little bit of on the ground action, just driving around and reaching out, you know, as face to face as you can nowadays.

JF  

It’s interesting, and I think very smart, that you went around to specific stores to talk to people. Did you have any issues figuring out how to approach it? That’s come up in some of the organizing discussions in the Restaurant Organizing Project national group. What’s the best way to approach people if you’re interested in reaching out to them about organizing? Should you just go up to the stores, or do you have to pass them things secretly so they don’t feel like they’re getting in trouble? I’m wondering how you approached that? 

CU

Unfortunately, there’s no one answer. It’s all really dependent on the situation. I was lucky because, you know, it’s fellow Peets workers. So I showed up, and I wore a Peets shirt so they knew I was one of them, and, you know, talked to them and stuff  in person since we already kind of had that initial connection. I would say if you’re trying to reach out to other people [outside your own workplace] it’s best to kind of take stock of who you know, and reach out to them first. We have done some cold calling before with our organizer, and that does kind of work. But, you’ve got to see what works for you. What I found is just going to a store, and starting off with simple conversation like ‘hey, how’s it going, how’s things in the store? What’s your work life like,’ and slowly bring up the fact that you have someone that they can reach out to if they want and if they have any questions or want to learn more. I found that works. In my personal opinion, I feel like people are just more receptive to those that they know, rather than strangers. I always find that when it comes to organizing it’s always important to have a people first view. Keeping it friendly, and keeping in mind that they’re people with lives. Getting into that relatability, you know.

JF  

Yeah, for sure. You mentioned cold calling people. When you did that, how did you get phone numbers? Was there a directory or something?

CU  

Kind of. Each Peet’s store has contact info of the various people. When you work in the city, like I did, there’s a bunch of Peet’s. You always end up covering a shift here and there so you kind of pick up people’s numbers along the way because people will always be like, ‘Oh you’re looking for shifts. You can come to this store.’ People are like, ‘Hey, we’re looking for people to cover a shift here.’ I ended up picking up numbers along the way. A couple times I checked the list in the back of stores of people’s numbers and stuff, and just tried reaching out that way. But, for the most part, it was a lot of just numbers I already had laying around, and reaching out to them. 

JF 

Is Peet’s like Starbucks, where the company owns most if not all of its stores? Or is it set up more like a franchise where franchise owners own individual or multiple stores in an area or region or whatever, but they’re not “technically” a part of the corporate structure, even though they are obviously connected?

CU  

Yeah, for the most part stores are owned by Peet’s corporate. There aren’t really any franchises. The one exception is that there’s some Peets that are in Capital One Banks. They’re not really connected to Peet’s corporate. Those are more franchises. But, for the most part, every Peet’s store that’s not in a Capital One is owned by corporate.

JF  

How does that affect how y’all approach organizing? Do you think it makes it easier because there’s maybe less individuals to target, and there’s a very clear line of authority? Or is it more difficult because they actually have a lot more stringent control over every different shop?

CU 

I‘d say that it makes it somewhat easier, in my opinion, knowing that everything’s kind of connected because we all have the same district manager, we kind of have the same idea of how the store is laid out. In terms of, like, corporate control I wouldn’t say that it was super stringent. But, I feel like the fact that we all have the same level of knowledge in the company, and the same kind of awareness of what’s going on, it makes things a bit easier because of it.

JF  

When you started this process was anyone in the store aware of some of the past organizing efforts in the city like around coffee shops? Folks with the IWW tried to organize a bunch of Starbucks shops. Recently Colectivo did their election.

CU

I don’t know about everyone else, but I would say that I definitely wasn’t really aware of anything. And I’m pretty sure that a lot of other people weren’t either. For the most part I would say no one was really aware of what was going on at, like, Colectivo or what was happening a couple years ago.

Trying to unionize ourselves really put us into the loop of what was going on around the city, and definitely woke us up to what was going on around us, and plugged us into the labor movement at large around the city. 

JF  

You mentioned you had picked up shifts for people at other stores. I was talking to a friend recently about how helping out people at work helps people with organizing. In our experience it’s been the case that the people that are really successful tend to be people that are already pretty good at their jobs, because it allows them to go out and help people. Those people in turn are trusted within the workplace. So, when someone who’s really good at their job says, “Oh, this is kind of fucked up, maybe we should organize around it,” I think people tend to listen. I was wondering if you’ve had experience around that.

CU

I would say that’s definitely a fair assessment. A lot of the people I know that are involved in the organizing are people who I would consider to be fairly well respected and fairly experienced at Peet’s. A lot of them are shift leads and things like that, and, you know, have a decent amount of experience with the company.

It helped was having those experienced people on board because it definitely set an example for everyone else. Once you kind of get those people on board, and everyone sees that it’s not just a bunch of lazy people trying to get more money, it’s people who just care, really care, about their job, and just want to make it a better place for everyone.

T.hat really changes people’s opinion and gets them on board. It kind of dispels a lot of that misinformation about how unions are lazy when they see that the people who are organizing the union are some of the hardest workers at their store or in their company. 

JF

From what you’ve seen, what are some of the primary challenges around trying to get better conditions for the people in your stores?

CU 

One of the biggest challenges I would say is an unsuredness. Basically, a lot of people are like, ‘oh, I don’t want to rock the boat. I don’t want to cause trouble. I don’t want to make people upset.’ We hear a lot like, ‘Oh, well, things aren’t really that bad. There’s people who had it worse. I don’t think this is really necessary.’ I’d say that has been a big challenge. People not respecting the value of their own work and labor and thinking that they don’t deserve things like a union or, you know, bargaining or anything like that, that’s kind of been the biggest challenge. People devaluing themselves in their work I would say. 

JF 

What do you feel like has been the best thing to combat that?

CU

The best way to combat that, I would say, would be to really just talk to your coworkers. I was talking to an organizer a few days ago with the Fight for 15, his name’s Brendan, and he just kind of cued me in to a really good insight about organizing and just talking to people in general. It’s about the human connection. It’s about just talking to people, and letting them find the answer for themselves. Don’t go in there trying to argue or debate or fight people on why to have a union. Just talk to them about the problems they’re having. Not even problems with their work, their life in general. And then, once they explain that to you, you can just kind of be like, ‘Oh, well, you’re having this problem? Well, you know, if you wanted to get rid of that problem a union would be a good way to do it.’ Unfortunately it’s not easy. It takes a lot of talking, a lot of conversations. It’s not something that happens overnight. So just talking to people constantly, all the time. Just relate to them.

JF 

What can people inside and outside the city do to help out?

CU

I think one of the best things is to follow the Fight for 15 and Fight for 15 Chicago on social media. That’s how they put out a lot of information about upcoming actions, and what’s going on. If you want to show out to an action just follow those places to find out, and then just show up. Other than that if people want to get involved, just reach out to their local organizer. I feel like more unions and collective organizing is better for everyone. So if you help organize your store it helps us organize our store. Other than that, you could always write emails to corporate saying, ‘hey we support our workers right to unionize’ and stuff like that, and just letting Peets know that the public stands with the workers on this one. That’s always a good option.

JF

Cool. Well, thank you so much again for taking the time to chat with me today. It’s been really helpful. It sounds like y’all are doing like great work, and I’m really excited to hear what comes out of it. 

CU

Yeah, we are too, you know, so I appreciate it.