When Zacary Heren started working at Colectivo Coffee in Andersonville around three years ago, he knew little about unions or labor organizing. Colectivo had recently voted to unionize, so he attended a few of the bargaining trainings hosted for employees. Then one day, he got a call from a union representative.
“I was at work one day when one of our reps called me,” Heren recalled. “He was just like, hey, do you want to be on the bargaining committee?” Heren immediately said yes. “I was like, I barely know what that means right now, but yes, I’m totally down.”
Colectivo’s first bargained contract was signed this past June, after Heren spent over a year negotiating on behalf of his coworkers. Heren is part of the growing unionization trend in Chicago over the past few years.
Last year on Labor Day, we took a deep dive into Chicago’s unions, and found that union petitions were soaring in 2022, reaching their highest point in more than a decade. New union petitions are still on the rise, a WBEZ analysis has found, showing that union activity this year is outpacing even 2022’s numbers.
Petitions are a key indicator of unionization
Petitions are the first step employees can take on the path to a collective bargaining agreement. According to Robert Bruno, professor of Labor and Employment Relations in the School of Labor Employment Relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, petitions are an important indicator of significant union growth to come.
“Think of the petitions as democratic statements of the will of workers to be collectively represented in the workplace,” Bruno said.
“When you see [petitions] increasing, you are seeing what we would call a leading indicator that there is an increased level of support for unionization,” Bruno said. “It also strongly suggests that there’s a lot of current organizing going on.”
The high number of new union petitions is even more powerful when combined with high success rates of union votes, Bruno explained. His research has found that most petitions for new unions are making it past the union elections, which if successful, means the union can officially enter negotiations with the employer.
In Illinois, the success rate for those elections is now about 56%, Bruno said. “Over the last decade, its range has usually been between 33% or 47%. So that’s a substantial increase.”
The higher success rate can inspire new petitions, Bruno said. “It sends a signal to other workers that you can actually successfully organize your union. … It raises confidence that voting for a union is going to generate a positive outcome.”
Brett Lyons, a business representative at IBEW Local 1220, which represents Heren and his coworkers at Colectivo, is also optimistic about current trends in labor organizing in Chicago.
“Unionization, in terms of popularity, is at one of its highest percentages in a long time. But it can be hard sometimes, if you don’t have a union in place already, to get that ball rolling. So it’s encouraging that people are open to unions, and more and more places are filing their petitions,” Lyons said.
When Lyons began working at Local 1220, the union mostly represented broadcast technicians. That was until it was given the opportunity to represent Colectivo employees as they began unionizing back in 2020.
“Now, three years later, we’re a hybrid mix of broadcasters and baristas. It’s certainly an interesting mix,” Lyons said.
Who is unionizing in 2023?
Union petitions have come from a variety of different industries this year. The most petitions came from hotel, news media, retail, maintenance, and coffee shop employees.
Bruno is keeping an eye on a few other areas, too. “We have a growing warehouse and logistics industry in the Greater Chicago area. … As more attention is paid to Amazon, for example, we can expect to see some organizing that will happen there,” he said. “Also the nonprofit sector, the cultural industry… places like at the Art Institute of Chicago, places like University of Chicago, Northwestern University, there’s been a lot of organizing that’s occurred in higher education,” he said.
After petitions and votes, comes change
In the few months since Colectivo employees’ first bargained contract was signed, Heren said he’s already seen improvements for himself and his coworkers.
“People really hated when they would get scheduled for ‘clopens,’ which is when you have to work a closing shift, followed immediately by an opening shift,” Heren said. “You would imagine it would be a sort of courtesy from the people making the schedule to not do that without asking, but that happened all the time.”
In their new contract, that’s not allowed. “We got a 12-hour rest period, a ‘clopen ban’ is what everyone’s calling it,” he explained. “It’s one of those small things that provides some relief in areas where you may not have expected it.” They also won a raise in the starting wage for new hires.
Lyons is excited about the new energy coming to unions like his own. “We look forward to working with new members and representing them,” he said. “Getting them introduced to labor, and providing them with what they need to feel like they have a voice in their workplace … that’s what this is all about, is you make the workplace work for you.”
Claire Kurgan is a data news intern at WBEZ.