The union seeking to represent staff at Victoria's Mountain Equipment Co-op alleges management interfered with a unionization vote after employees claimed the co-op used "scare tactics" in an effort to convince workers not to organize.
The Vancouver Island store is trying to join the same union that represents the larger flagship Vancouver outlet of the Canadian outdoor equipment retailer.
Victoria staff say they want better wages and more job security but claim management launched an "assertive and aggressive campaign" to dissuade workers at the Government Street store from joining their Vancouver counterparts in the same bargaining unit of the United Food and Commercial Workers 1518 (UFCW).
Staff voted Nov. 2 on whether to unionize, but the ballots remain sealed. The process was stalled after MEC management challenged the Victoria unionization vote at the B.C. Labour Board this week.
'Assertive and quite aggressive campaign'
On Oct. 29, Victoria MEC staff filed an application to join the UFCW which, in April, had certified the Vancouver store. On Tuesday, MEC managers argued the two stores are too different from each other to be represented by the same bargaining unit.
However, union organizers say it's common for employers to want to limit the size and power of bargaining units.
On Thursday, the B.C. Labour Relations Board found against the company, ruling the bargaining unit is appropriate and ordered a ballot count that is expected to take place next week.
During the union's organizing drive, Victoria staffers say they were shocked by management's reaction to it.
"We saw a very assertive and quite aggressive campaign from the employer — which surprised all of us because we expected MEC to be far more supportive of their employees and far less anti-union than say a Walmart or an Amazon," said one-year Victoria employee Alexandre Charron.
He joined MEC in 1995 as a teen rock climber living in North Bay, Ont. So for Charron, getting hired in 2018 to work at the climbing counter in Victoria was a dream. He'd long admired the Vancouver-based co-op's ethos of encouraging people to enjoy the outdoors.
But inside MEC walls, Charron says staff frustration had been rising, even before 11-year CEO David Labistour left in July.
Philippe Arrata, chief executive officer of MEC, and the former CFO of Best Buy Canada, declined comment.
But memos to employees entitled "Updates from Phil" obtained by CBC News raise the spectre MEC could be in financial trouble if the unionization drive were to succeed.
"MEC's current financial outlook is difficult ... our Co-op is being pressured by stiff competition and the challenges currently facing all 'bricks and mortars' retailers," it read.
"We shared major financial information [with the union's bargaining committee] which even our banks have not seen yet because we felt the information was important in understanding the seriousness of our situation in BC and across the Co-op."
But according to Charron, "we were not permitted to speak freely in order to rebut some of these claims."
UFCW 1518 confirmed that a formal unfair labour practices complaint has been filed over MEC's actions.
In a written statement to CBC, MEC's chief human resources officer, Deb Paulsen, suggests staff are mischaracterizing MEC as anti-union. Paulsen said MEC has unionized workers at two distribution centres, in addition to the Vancouver store.
Paulsen said a company campaign called "crunch time" was launched to inform staff about the financial "headwinds" hitting MEC and all retailers.
"We acted within our role as the employer to ensure our staff are informed of their vote choices," wrote Paulsen.
The union says it filed an unfair labour practice complaint Nov. 4, saying MEC had gone too far.
Charron said managers played up the threat of a strike. Memos posted in the elevator, washrooms and by the punch clock warned workers they'd have to "live with the outcome" if they voted for union representation.
It's not the first face-off between staff and MEC leaders.
The union says two Vancouver staffers MEC believed to be union organizers were dismissed days before the union vote.
Kate Milberry, press secretary for UFCW 1518, said it stepped in and MEC settled with both employees before the April staff vote, which endorsed the unionization bid.
"The one employee, who would have become a union member after we organized MEC, was offered his job back, or a settlement. He chose the settlement," said Milberry in a written statement.
However, in a written statement MEC completely denied the union's account, saying it never terminated an employee due to union activity or reinstated one as a result of advocacy by a union or any other third party.
After the Vancouver store unionized in April, MEC employees in Toronto began a drive to organize, which is continuing, but has not yet resulted in a vote.