Baristas rise up: “We are always stronger together”

One might have thought that coffee shops would be the last place a union organizing drive would be successful. They’re part of a low-wage service sector that has historically been resistant to unionization: small workplaces with often-transient staff.

But the times they are a-changing. Could Halifax be the epicentre of a new union earthquake in the industry?

Back in the Spring I wrote about an attempt to unionize the Just Us! Café on Spring Garden Road. There was an almost classic situation there: “hey, we’re all on the same side here” paternalism quickly shifting to crude intimidation tactics by management, which did nothing to stem the dedicated organizing activity on the ground. Then success—after some negotiations and a lot of pressure, Just Us! agreed to voluntarily recognize its baristas as members of Local 2 of the Service International Employees Union (SEIU).

Now mobilizing has shifted to two Second Cup outlets, where the staff have also voted on unionization, and are now confidently awaiting the results from the Nova Scotia Labour Board. But the going hasn’t been easy. When the Second Cup staff at the Quinpool Road outlet started to show interest in unionizing, they faced retaliation as well—on-the-job intimidation and firings by franchise owner Kathy Attis.

Owners are facing a different workforce these days. “I’m not a transient worker,” says Shelby Kennedy, 21, who has been in the industry for 7 years. There is a youth job crisis in Nova Scotia, and employees in the service industry have more of a stake in the jobs they are able to land. That in turn gives them the incentive to improve their working conditions, and a union is the tried and true way of doing just that.

A ripple effect is already being felt. Jason Edwards, the baristas’ union rep from Local 2, says SEIU has been getting interested inquiries from “the entire gamut of cafes” in Halifax.

And this isn’t a case of a union actively chasing down new members. SEIU has been working with an unofficial grassroots campaign in Halifax, BRU (Baristas Rise Up). “A lot of times we’ll go after an industry,” says Edwards. “But this is really more worker-driven. It’s basically us responding to calls that we’re getting and not us cold calling.”

Interest is not confined to the city of Halifax by any means. “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,” says Atlantic CLC rep Tony Tracy.

Could we be witnessing the start of a national trend? Clearly the young Halifax workers have struck a nerve: the National Post has already launched an attack on them, bizarrely claiming that a low-wage industry is no place for unions. And cups of coffee in unionized Halifax cafés will rise to $8.95 a cup, the NaPo journalist fatuously predicts.

If the baristas have already attracted the wrath of an anti-union national newspaper, they must be doing something right. Wear it with pride, sisters and brothers, and keep on keeping on.

Photo and video: Lesley Thompson

July 25, 2013