Written by David Doorey, York University
Years ago, in 2014 I think, I did a public lecture and I gave it a controversial title: “Why Unions Can’t Help Baristas”. In the months preceding the talk there was a flurry of reporting about union organizing at Canadian coffee shops. Was this the beginning of a new era of fast food union organizing, as many of the articles proclaimed? I argued that people should take a breath. History was not on the side of the baristas who wanted collective bargaining.
The legal model of collective bargaining we use in Canada and the US [the Wagner model] was not designed to protect baristas. It targeted collective bargaining in giant manufacturing factories and mines, not small retail outlets. Why would we expect a model designed for collective bargaining in a car plant with 1000 full-time workers to work in a coffee shop with 20 part-time baristas? More on this discussion in a minute.
This week I spoke to a reporter about a new wave of union organizing in Canada involving baristas working for Starbucks. The reporter was working on a podcast for Canadaland called “The Baristas vs Starbucks”. The podcast notes that of more than 1400 Starbucks stores in Canada, only one is unionized. That store is Victoria and was unionized in August 2020. Turnover is high at the store, as with most retail stores, but there are around 35 employees at any given time.
In June 2021, the Steelworkers signed a first collective agreement with Starbucks for the Victoria store. The fact that the union was able to bargain an agreement with a large anti-union American corporations is a significant achievement. Starbucks tried to discount the agreement in a Press Release by stating that after union dues, the wage increase the unionized employees take home is only cents an hour above what non-union Starbucks workers are paid. However, it seems to me that the important takeaway is that the unionized workers got a small raise PLUS a list of very important non-monetary rights and restrictions on the right of Starbucks to act unilaterally in the running of the store.
Here is the Steelworkers’ Collective Agreement with Starbucks in Victoria, BC. It includes wage increases, but more importantly it includes a series of restrictions on the unfettered right of management to run the store however it wants, including:
- A requirement that Starbucks treat employees fairly and without discrimination or harassment. This language will permit employees to challenge arbitrary or ‘unfair’ decisions through the grievance procedure.
- A right of two employees to be elected as union reps at the workplace and to engage in union work with pay.
- A right of employees to wear Steelworkers’ insignia at work.
- Importantly, the collective agreement includes the usual requirement found in unionized workplaces in Canada that discipline and dismissal only be for Just Cause. This is a significant change from the non-union setting, in which an employee can be terminated at any time for any or no reason at all (except for some statutory reasons, such as discrimination based on a prohibited ground or based on union support).
- A right of workers to have a union representative present at any disciplinarily meeting.
- A sunset clause prohibiting the employer from relying upon past discipline after a period of time without further discipline.
- A grievance procedure permitting employees to challenge management decisions.
- A right to a workplace free from psychological danger.
- Seniority rights in layoffs, recalls, and promotions (so the boss can’t just choose their best friend)
- A requirement for Starbucks to “schedule employees up to 40 hours per week provided the employee is available and hours are available’.
- A ‘joint workplace relations committee’ to be formed comprised of equal employer and union/employee representatives (including the possibility of a representative from the Steelworkers District Office). Meetings to be held quarterly during working hours.
The challenge of unionizing coffee shops
I’ve discussed why it is so difficult for unions to organize fast food and retail workers on this blog before. When I was an actual labour lawyer in the 1990s and early 2000s, my main clients were the United Steelworkers and the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union (RWDSU), both of which were active organizing retail and fast food. I worked on lots of organizing campaigns for companies like Tim Hortons, Walmart, The Bay, and so forth. In almost every case, employer was resistance was hostile.
In the mid-1990s, I worked on a case that eventually lead to the world’s first ever unionized Walmart in Windsor after Walmart hinted to employees that the store would close if the workers voted to unionize. I worked on cases where Tim Horton’s employees voted to unionize. Getting unionized in Canada is not easy in the face of hostile resistance, but it is still ‘easier’ than in the United States where the law is so feeble that it permits employers to actively interfere in the unionization decision. However, of those cases I worked on involving retail stores, even when the union was certified, they were never able to get a collective agreement or at least a second collective agreement.
Winning unionization is only the first step in the battle to obtain a sustainable collective agreement with lasting power. Once the union wins certification, it then needs to sit down with a giant corporation that has zero interest in bargaining a collective agreement that employees will like. The entire point of the bargaining from the perspective of a Walmart or Starbucks is to demonstrate to other employees that there is no point in unionizing. That is hardly a conducive environment for negotiations.
The reason why unions have so much trouble making inroads into service sector workplaces like coffee shops is that they are at a significant power disadvantage in bargaining. Starbucks can drag out bargaining for months by simply showing up at the negotiations and discussing politely why it will not agree to most of the union’s proposals. This is not unlawful, as long as it engages in a dialogue. The duty to bargain in Canada does not require Starbucks to agree to the unions’ proposals, it just requires it to discuss those proposals reasonably. The Wagner Model has an answer for an employer that won’t give into the union’s proposals: a strike.
Here’s where we can see why the model created for giant car and steel factories and mines doesn’t work well for Starbucks employees. If the 35 employees at the Victoria store went out on strike, how much do you think that would hurt Starbucks Canada, with its 1400 stores? I have described the answer as a mosquito bite in a bear’s ass. In BC, there is a restriction on the right of Starbucks to hire scab replacement workers, so that helps the union. But seriously, a work stoppage by a small store in Victoria is little more than a nuisance to Starbucks Canada. It can hold out longer than workers can hang out on a picket line earning meagre strike pay from the union.
The situation is much different for employees of General Motors. If 1000 Autoworkers walk off the job and shut down all car production for months, GM feels that. GM has a MUCH GREATER economic incentive to bargain a fair deal with the autoworker unions than does Starbucks or Walmart to bargain a deal at one of hundreds of stores. Can you see the difference? [And don’t get me started on how pulling of a successful ‘strike’ of Uber drivers would face serious hurdles]
Therefore, historically most employers in fast food have been able to make life so difficult for unions trying to unionize one-off stores that the union ultimately ends up failing, by which I mean they eventually are decertified or they abandon the bargaining rights after all of their original supporters leave and are replaced by new workers less sympathetic to the union. This is what makes the Victoria Starbucks agreement somewhat unusual. It provides real benefits to the employees and was achieved without a strike.
However, even if the Steelworkers and the Victoria Starbucks employees are able to sustain the collective agreement for years to come, it is an outlier in Canadian labour history. This is why I keep coming back to the larger policy issue. If we want fast food workers to have real, sustainable, effective access to collective bargaining in Canada, we need a model of collective bargaining that is not rooted in the giant manufacturing plants of the 1950s.
Last month, the Steelworkers applied to represent 5 Starbucks stores in Lethbridge, Alberta. This is great, because the more stores that are included, the greater the union’s bargaining power, for reasons I just discussed. I don’t know enough about that case to know whether the 5 stores will be accepted as an “appropriate bargaining unit”, but we will watch what happens there.
In terms of policy, we are thinking about forms of ‘sectoral bargaining’ in retail, a system that permits bargaining at the industry (all coffee shop workers) or corporate (all Starbucks employees) level. I’ve discussed New Zealand’s new model and other models that have been proposed in Canada in the past, but never introduced. A favourite policy of mine is the right of a union to consolidate different stores of the same employer in a province into a single unit and then to sweep all newly organized stories into that existing collective agreement. These are ideas, but we are a long way from having wide-spread agreement on what model could help, really help, build worker power in Canada’s fast food and retail sectors moving forward.