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Milwaukee: Wonderstate Coffee workers successfully form union in historic win

By Ethan Costello |
December 22, 2020
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Milwaukee, WI – Café workers at Wonderstate Coffee located in Milwaukee’s Third Ward have successfully unionized. Workers at Wonderstate are Milwaukee’s as the first coffee shop employees to form a union. These Wonderstate employees are now represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Local 344, which represents sales and service employees as well as many other workers across the state, including those at UPS.

Wonderstate Coffee employs six workers, consisting of baristas, kitchen staff and cashiers. As of December 16, these six workers have formed a bargaining unit. As a collective organization, they will begin negotiating for wage increases, benefits and terms of secure employment.

Their success in unionizing was timely. The company is closing the café for an undetermined amount of time, citing concerns about COVID-19. Without a union, Wonderstate workers would be at the will of the company. They would have no assurances of their continued employment whenever the café reopens. Several months ago, kitchen and wait staff at Comet Café learned this firsthand when management shut down the operation after complaints about untenable working conditions.

Molly Kiefer, the kitchen lead at Wonderstate, had a big role in the success of this effort.

“The support we have received from communities within and beyond Milwaukee has been significant and I am so grateful for everyone who has reached out in support of our effort,” Kiefer said.

Although the shop is closing for a time, Kiefer expressed pride in their collective accomplishment.

“While the closing affects what the union will look like over the next few months, the union will still be present for future employees and we are excited they will be able to benefit,” Keifer said. “This is particularly meaningful to me, because it gives baristas and bakers in Milwaukee the opportunity to practice the craft they love and have a union job, something that isn't readily available in the Milwaukee coffee community.”

Wonderstate was not the first coffee shop to lead a unionization effort in Milwaukee, but they were the first to win. Early in 2019, workers at Stonecreek Coffee led the charge with an initial effort (also with IBT Local 344), but eventually lost that battle. Workers at Colectivo are currently campaigning to form a union through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 494.

Wonderstate management has vaguely told their employees that the shop will reopen in 2021 though no date has yet been set. During that time, IBT Local 344’s newest members will be negotiating for fair pay, benefits, and their right to return to work when the shop reopens.

The victory at Wonderstate is not the only union win for workers in Milwaukee but the latest. Several weeks before the vote at the coffee shop, workers at the Milwaukee Art Museum won their union election and officially joined the security guards in their workplace represented by the International Association of Machinists.

In addition, workers at two local nonprofits - Voces de la Frontera and Wisconsin Voices - are in various stages of their own organizing drives. An online panel set to include members of these various efforts across industries is being planned by the Young Workers Committee of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council. This event is expected to be held late next month.