Workers at the Minneapolis-based fair-trade coffee company are seeking better wages and a collective voice
In the latest union push in the Twin Cities’ food and beverage industry, last week workers at Minneapolis-based Peace Coffee announced their intent to unionize with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663. The announcement comes shortly before the results of the first Minnesota Starbucks union election are made public; on April 27, Starbucks workers at St. Paul’s Snelling Avenue location will deliver a litmus test on the national unionization wave’s success in Minnesota, where it has caught on at five stores since February.
Workers at Peace Coffee say they’re seeking better wages, sustainable workloads, a better work-life balance, and a seat at the table in company decision-making. They say they were inspired by other unionization efforts across the country, particularly the Starbucks unionizations, which continue to gain nationwide momentum.
“Most unions are born out of conversations with coworkers — and especially in the coffee industry, coffee and conversations go hand in hand,” says Peder Swanson, a production roaster with Peace Coffee. “We’ve seen frontline workers and essential workers want a more collaborative workplace, and we’re seeing that unionizing is the proven way to bring about these democratic ideals.”
Peace Coffee is one of the Twin Cities’ best-known coffee roasters. Established in Minneapolis in 1996, the company ran several retail coffee shops before closing them in fall of 2020 and redirecting its efforts to wholesale production. Certified as “B Corp,” Peace Coffee buys only organic, fair-trade beans from small grower cooperatives that organize and advocate for farmers, and share profits equitably. The company supplies coffee beans — packaged in its trademark bright-red bags — to grocery stores in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Workers say that the unionization effort was also spurred by the pandemic, which widened the divide between management and staff and curtailed collaboration. Roasters, packers, and warehouse and delivery workers were coming in daily, while those with office jobs worked from home.
“We were physically separated from the people who work in the offices because they were able to work from home during the pandemic, and a lot of them still do. The entire time we came into work — we were frontline essential workers,” says Malka Hampton, shipping and receiving lead at Peace Coffee. “A lot of our frustration stems from a disconnect that formed because of it. It’s about wanting to get that back, the unity back between us.”
So far, Peace Coffee management has not voluntarily recognized the workers’ union. In a statement posted online, owner and CEO Lee Wallace underlined the company’s values of kindness and empathy, and vowed to “support each worker’s rights and will respect whatever choice they make.” Peace Coffee declined to provide further comment for this article.
Swanson and Hampton said that management’s response to the unionization effort has been largely positive. They’re prepared to go to election in the coming weeks, and are optimistic about the outcome.
Before that election, though, come the results of Minnesota’s first Starbucks union vote. The April 27 election announcement from St. Paul’s Snelling Avenue location is highly anticipated, as it may forecast the outcome of the local Starbucks unionization wave, which has spread to five total stores. Results from a second election at a Cedar Avenue Starbucks will be announced May 2; elections at St. Anthony, Minneapolis, and Mall of America locations will follow.
Unionization efforts in Minnesota are part of a national wave in Starbucks stores across the country, spurred by a successful election at a Buffalo, New York location. (Momentum on the union front has clearly distressed Starbucks: Newly returned anti-union CEO Howard Schultz berated a pro-union barista in Long Beach, California, last week.)
Peace Coffee’s efforts also follow those of other coffee and craft beverage workers in Minnesota who’ve unionized during the course of the pandemic. Workers at Tattersall Distilling successfully unionized in August of 2020, and Stilheart Distillery, Lawless Distilling, and Fair State Brewing followed in September. Other efforts have failed: In the fall of 2020, Spyhouse Coffee workers voted against unionization in a close election, and workers at Surly Brewing Co. fell one vote short.
A union election date for Peace Coffee hasn’t been set yet. In the meantime, workers are building support on social media, and encouraging coffee drinkers to go buy a bag of beans at their local — unionized — co-op or grocery store.