Wonderstate Coffee Workers Seek Support for Union Drive

Workers at Wonderstate Coffee’s Milwaukee location are attempting to unionize and they are not happy with the response they’ve received from the company’s owners.

The workers petitioned Wonderstate in September, backed by an overwhelming majority of staff, asking management to recognize their union. But Wonderstate has chosen not to voluntarily do so.

Workers and Wonderstate are also in dispute over which jobs would qualify as union positions. The workers see the dispute as an attempt by Wonderstate to keep some employees out of the union. That issue has yet to be decided by the National Labor Relations Board. Once that happens, the workers are planning to hold an official unionization election.

Wonderstate, which is headquartered in Viroqua, has built a reputation as a company with progressive values, which it trumpets in its marketing. The company pays guaranteed minimum prices to coffee growers, a system it calls “sourcing for the collective good.” Earlier this year, the company changed its name from Kickapoo Coffee to Wonderstate, after recognizing its former name as an appropriation of the Kickapoo Nation. But workers who are organizing the union drive say the response they’ve received from ownership has been disappointing.

“The owners have not openly supported our union, despite recognizing that their company values align with unions and that they support worker-owned organizations through their coffee buying practices,” an employee told the La Crosse Independent. “We are disappointed in their lack of explicit support because we expected more from a company that has such a strong values system and promotes fair compensation within the coffee supply chain.”

As a display of support for the workers, members of the Coulee Democratic Socialists in Viroqua and La Crosse have launched a petition drive to pressure Wonderstate’s Viroqua leadership to recognize the union. Our Wisconsin Revolution’s La Crosse and Milwaukee chapters also joined in that call. Click here to view the petition. 

The Milwaukee workers are working with Teamsters Local 344 and hope to inspire more organizing among coffee workers and service employees in general. They see their effort as an expression of solidarity with workers at the larger Colectivo Coffee chain in Milwaukee, who are also currently attempting to unionize, and with employees at the Milwaukee Art Museum who recently won their election to form a union.

“The service industry thrives on the foundation of employers not being held responsible for paying their workers sub-living wages,” a statement from one of Wonderstate workers said. “I believe in unions as a source for holding employers accountable for the livelihoods of the workers that allow their businesses to succeed.”

TJ Semanchin, one of the company’s owners in Viroqua, told the La Crosse Independent that Wonderstate had taken “no position” on the union drive. He added that a “confidential election is an appropriate and healthy response” to the issue.

“To unionize or not to unionize is our staff’s decision, and we respect their right to do so. As a small company we are doing our best to respond to the legal process set out by the National Labor Relations Board and we’ve complied fully with all the requests presented to us,” Semanchin said. “Whatever the final outcome of this process, we commit to continuing a strong partnership with our staff as we look to the future.”

A Wonderstate employee in Milwaukee said that they had hoped the company would openly support the workers’ attempt to organize.

“Even though it is very rare for a company to voluntarily recognize their workers’ union, I was hopeful Wonderstate Milwaukee would be able to recognize how their values align with our union,” the employee said. “It is deeply disappointing that they have chosen not to take that route. Nevertheless, I am excited for the future and the possibilities the union will open.”

As of Tuesday evening, the petition asking Wonderstate to recognize the Milwaukee union had collected around 50 signatures. The organizers plan to present the petition to Wonderstate management in Viroqua in the near future. 

One person who signed the petition added, “I had planned to order more coffee from y’all today but now I’m waiting for you to do the right thing. Recognize the union!”

By Eric Timmons. Top image shows the Wonderstate Coffee shop in Milwaukee. Email questions or tips to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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