UPDATE: 2:50 p.m. - April 15, 2022
MISSOULA - Employees at Black Coffee Roasting Company were set to vote on their unionization Friday at work but due to COVID-19 restrictions through the National Relations Labor Board, they’ve learned that their election must be held via mail-in ballots. (Full story here)
(first report: 10:32 a.m. - April 15, 2022)
MISSOULA - Employees working for corporate giants such as Amazon and Starbucks are voting to unionize.
With nearly 10,000 stores in the United States, over 180 Starbucks branches have formally applied to hold elections to join a union.
But it's not just coffee shops on a national scale — employees of a Missoula-owned shop are also taking matters into their own hands.
Organic, craft roasted, and sustainable — Missoula's Black Coffee Roasting Company checks all the boxes.
“First of all, the coffee is some of the best, I think probably the best in Missoula,” employee Keefe Farr told MTN News.
“Black Coffee is known for being progressive,” added employee Marley Pine.
And it’s not just the coffee that keeps customers coming back.
“The main ingredient of this place. I don't wanna sound corny, but the love that the people have for what they’re doing here,” observed customer Curt Nielsen.
“My business partner and I put everything on the line for this business, and it means the world to me,” said owner Matthew McQuilkin.
Despite the consensus that the coffee is good — and the people even better, the work conditions behind the signature garage doors came into question last month.
“It is an awesome place to work, but no one could afford to work here,” Pine stated.
“They wanted the actual wage to increase from $10 to $13 an hour. We told folks we would talk about it and think about it. And we did for a few weeks, and ultimately came back and agreed, and said yes.” - Black Coffee Roasting Company owner Matthew McQuilkin.
Management also agreed to offer employees paid time off, which is something they didn’t have before.
“We met them where they wanted to be met,” McQuilkin said.
Even as concerns were met with understanding and change, the wheels began to turn.
"We learned that collective bargaining was effective in having our voices heard, so we were like why do we stop now?” Pine asked.
Employees took a lesson from our country’s history books and began pushing for a union — not because they felt their safety was at risk like unions of the 19th century, but because they wanted a seat at the table.
“Just in general, we think that it’s good for people to organize and form unions when possible because we just see what's happening in Missoula, the cost of living is increasing, and we wanna make sure working people aren’t left behind." - Black Coffee Roasting Company employee Keefe Farr
For employees, it’s an agenda based on not living paycheck to paycheck. But for McQuilkin, it’s a confusing direction to take to reach that goal.
When asked what the union will mean for him, he said, “Well, I’m not exactly sure right now because we’re gonna go through a contract negotiation -- if it goes through, and at that point that’s when decisions will be made about how things go."
Black Coffee Roasting Company's 15-some employees will take to a vote on Friday, and a simple majority will mean that they are an independent union.
"And then the real work begins where we start negotiating a contract and we start deciding what our union is going to look like and how we want to run it,” Pine said.
Regardless of the vote's outcome, McQuilkin says his mission will remain.
"All I’m gonna do is continue doing what I’ve always done, which is trying to take care of the people that work with me, and to be a fair and honest person and to run a good business,” McQuilkin said. “And to try to supply coffee to Missoula and provide an awesome atmosphere for people to have a cup of coffee.”
Farr told MTN News that an independent union could just be the start of a new mission, “We’re hoping to inspire the rest of the food workers in Missoula to do the same.”
“There is power in a union, there’s power in your voice, that’s all a union is,” said Pine.
If unionized, regulars like Nielsen will know there’s something much larger happening behind his daily dose of caffeine.
"America needs a balance, and maybe unions could start to bring the balance that we're so desperately in need of this country," said Nielsen. "It’s we the people, after all."