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Challenged ballots hold up Sweetwaters union election results in Ann Arbor

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Challenged ballots hold up Sweetwaters union election results in Ann Arbor

Feb 08, 2024 | 4:04 pm ET
By Jon King
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Challenged ballots hold up Sweetwaters union election results in Ann Arbor
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Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea, E. Liberty Street, Ann Arbor

Verification of a union vote by employees of Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea in Ann Arbor is being held up after some ballots were challenged.

The election was held Jan. 25 and involved all full-time and regular part-time baristas, senior team leads, and team leads at Sweetwaters’ four Ann Arbor-area locations, owned by University of Michigan grads Lisa and Wei Bee. It was organized by a group called Sweetwaters Baristas United (SBU), which seeks representation through Teamsters Local 243, the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Of the 84 eligible voters, only 44 cast ballots, with employees voting 25 to 19 for union representation, according to records with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

However, there were 11 challenged ballots. As they are determinative to the outcome of the election, NLRB press secretary Kayla Blado tells the Michigan Advance that Regional Director Elizabeth Kerwin is in the process of “deciding whether to have a hearing on the challenged ballots and the objections.”

Sweetwaters baristas in Ann Arbor voting Thursday on whether to form a union

When asked about the nature of those challenges, Scott Wood, a trustee and business representative with Local 243, told the Advance that it stemmed from an event held Jan. 20 at the West Washington Street location to support the union effort.

“They put charges against our local for supposedly bribery, because we all went there and had a Sip In one day, and because some of us tipped [the baristas], they’re kind of going that route with it,” he said.

Blado said the NLRB was also investigating an unfair labor practice complaint filed against Lisa Bee, who was accused by union organizers of promising that if the union vote failed, any barista filling in for a shift would receive a free meal. 

“Incentivizing against unionization violates the National Labor Rights Act, and an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge was filed against the company,” SBU stated.

According to online records, the complaint was filed Dec. 14 under Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act, which says employers cannot “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights,” to collectively organize.

A request for comment was sent to Sweetwaters’ management, but has yet to be returned.

Union organizers said they were seeking a variety of improvements, including higher wages, better benefits, reliable scheduling, and a democratic workplace.

Bee previously told the Advance that 90% of their employees are students, who mostly work part-time or seasonally. 

“We strive to provide them with the flexibility they need to accommodate their educational needs. We pay above the state minimum wage, and our team members earn between $16.49 and $22 per hour, not counting whatever they receive in cash tips from our generous guests,” said Bee.

The effort to unionize Ann Arbor baristas follows a similar effort at local Starbucks coffee stores, among at least 16 locations in Michigan that have voted to unionize, but continue to bargain for a contract with the corporation.