Union drive by Halifax baristas being closely watched elsewhere in Canada

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Baristas of the world unite!

Union activists are keeping a close eye on a drive to organize workers at some Halifax coffee bars, The Canadian Press reports.

"We're seeing a real phenomenon in Halifax of coffee shop workers coming together and organizing," Tony Tracy, Atlantic representative for the Canadian Labour Congress, told CP. "In terms of the coffee shop industry, Halifax has been a bit of an anomaly."

The restaurant and food services sector traditionally has been one of the hardest to unionize. Many eateries are small businesses with a history of low wages, where tipping is considered part of an employees' overall income.

According to CP, staff at Just Us!, a local fair-trade coffee chain in Halifax, successfully joined Local 2 of the Service Employees International Union. That was followed by word that employees at two Second Cup outlets in the city had voted to join the union, though CP said the results have not been released.

The union said this was the first time Canadian baristas had successfully unionized, though some Starbucks outlets in Western Canada were covered by collective agreements for about a decade.

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Specialty coffee shops have indeed been a tough nut to crack. The Starbucks chain has not been union-friendly. The Industrial Workers of the World tried to make inroads in the United States and Chile, triggering a strike in the latter location and controversy over the firing of a New York Starbucks employee in 2011 allegedly because she'd joined the union.

Workers at several Canadian Starbucks outlets — seven in Vancouver and one in Regina — were represented by the Canadian Auto Workers for a time. But the union's drive to organize the chain stalled and by 2007, all off the unionized stores had decertified, the Vancouver Sun reported at the time.

Union representative John Bowman told the Sun the employers' staunch anti-union stance, coupled with high staff turnover and a general apathy caused the effort to fizzle.

There were news reports that that two employees had been fired for trying to form a union, CP said, but the company denied the claim.

The Halifax Chronicle Herald reported earlier this month that one Second Cup outlet was targeted by protesters over allegations three employees had been fired for trying to form a union, which would violate Nova Scotia's labour legislation.

Just Us! reached a deal to unionize after similar allegations, the Chronicle Herald said.

"I've been taking calls from colleagues and co-workers across the country who've been following this trend in Halifax very closely and looking at it as a model for talking to young workers in other cities," said Tracy told CP. "I think we'll still be analyzing this one for years to come."

Both ideology and economics are behind the low union penetration of the food-service sector, expert David Doorey told CP.

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"It is a highly competitive industry, and employers believe unionization will pose a threat to their profit margins," said Doorey, who teaches labour and employment law at York University in Toronto.

"The labour force is often part-time, there is high turnover, and pay and benefits are low. Many of these workers do not have enough commitment to the job to tolerate the inevitable tensions that arise when the employer begins to resist the union campaign."

Demographic shifts may trigger a change, Doorey said. Many coffee-shop workers are university educated young people who haven't found work in their fields and now regard serving lattes as perhaps a longer-term job.

“It's really an effort on the part of young workers stepping up and coming to the realization that these are the jobs they have --and they seem to be having for periods of years -- and working to make those livable jobs," he said.