The unionization of baristas in Halifax has earned mainstream news coverage, including CBC Radio’s “News at Six” and well-researched articles in the press addressing wider issues of low wages and lack of job security for young workers. In contrast, some commentary in the right-wing press perpetuates common but false claims about work and unionization.
#1: Unionization will lead to a $8.95 coffee
It’s a common assumption on the right that unionization will lead to higher prices for the consumer, thus hurting business and stalling employment growth. Many coffee shops, like Second Cup and Starbucks, already have high prices because they operate on a “boutique” coffee business model. A slight increase in a Starbucks cappuccino will likely have no effect on the clientele. And there are already unionized Starbucks, Second Cups and Tim Horton’s around Canada. The coffee doesn’t cost more. It is also worth noting that wages represent only one of many issues that are driving workers at coffee shops to unionize. The lack of job security, dignity, and the enforcement of the labour standards act are just as, if not more, important in why workers choose to form unions. The potential and purpose of the coffee shop union drive is not to punish small business owners, but to transform a sector of low wage precarious jobs into something better. This means building union density and creating a base minimum contract covering wages, job security and benefits for all coffee shop workers in a geographic area. This would not put any coffee shop at a competitive disadvantage. It would create more good jobs, especially for young workers, without a dramatic rise in coffee prices.
#2: Baristas are unskilled workers
Making this claim is a cheap debating trick. It’s another way of saying baristas (and any other “unskilled workers”) only deserve poverty wages, insecure employment and generally shitty working conditions. Service work is incredibly skill intensive, requiring a high degree of emotional craft and labour. The argument about the undeserving unskilled is rolled out whenever low-wage workers struggle for better treatment, unionization and the chance to bargain for higher wages. The same arguments were made about low-wage, insecure “unskilled” auto assembly line workers when they were fighting for unionization in the 1930s and 1940s. The fact is, every job requires a certain degree of skill, whether physical, mental or both. More importantly, the question of “skill” is a complete red herring, a smokescreen. Either you support a living wage and dignity in the workplace for all, or you don’t.
#3: Unionization is about “labour perks”, not “labour rights”
Pensions, “extended holidays”, decent wages, dental coverage, job security: all these provisions have been dismissed at one point by the anti-union crowd as mere “perks” or “privileges”, as if they are not deserved or earned. But these “perks”, whether secured through collective agreements or government legislation are never handed down to workers by employers or government. They are concessions won from employers and government through unionization battles, protests, strikes, sit-ins and electoral challenges. We are now living in a period where these concessions to labour are being lost. Employers like US Steel and Caterpillar and government legislation like Ontario’s Bill 115 and the federal government’s Bill C-525, are rolling back workers legal rights and working conditions. What labour has won is never permanent, and since the onset of neoliberalism in the 1970s, labour has fought continuous battles against the concession-seeking agenda of employers public and private. Unionization only guarantees the right to bargain collectively, not outcomes. It does not guarantee higher wages, better benefits, other forms of compensation, or effective grievance procedures and practice. Workers have to organize, educate and fight collectively to win anything.
#4: Baristas can take grievances to the government
Baristas could do this, so this isn’t a myth. But as anyone who has worked non-union jobs knows, we regularly bury complaints because it is extremely difficult and dangerous as an individual employee to pursue a grievance against your employer in a non-union environment. More importantly, pursuing these complaints through basic employment standards regulations and legislation usually requires individual workers to hire costly legal representation. The financial costs and the lengthy procedure involved in such a complaint is often prohibitive. Going into work each day and facing the prospect of dealing with the employer while the grievance is unresolved is also intimidating. Many workers will quit their jobs instead of filing a complaint. This is an individual solution to the problem, but doesn’t actually improve working conditions. These realities expose the inherently unequal power relations in the workplace when workers try to deal with the employer individually. Collectively, in a union, workers can turn to grievance procedures and other provisions in their contract to resolve problems. Unionized workers can rely on grievance timelines, the support and knowledge of shop stewards and union officials, and the resources of the union. This is a far more powerful, effective and safe way of addressing and resolving grievances. Not all unions are effective with grievances. This is why it’s important that trade unionists are democratically engaged in their unions, and changing them to meet their needs.
#5: Unionization will hurt “mom and pop” coffee shops
“Mom and pop” coffee shops are already being pushed to extinction by corporate coffee chains like Starbucks, Second Cup and Tim Horton’s. Like WalMart, these corporations squeeze out their small-time competition through brand appeal, bulk purchasing power which reduces unit costs, low-wage non-union workforces, and all the other advantages that come with large cash reserves and access to lucrative lines of credit. The fact is that the corporate coffee chains, with their millions upon millions in quarterly profits, can easily afford unionized workforces with living wages, benefits and job security. And why would “mom and pop” shops be facing union drives anyway? The recent coffee shop dust-ups at Halifax’s “Just Us”, “Second Cup” and Thunder Bay’s “Bean Fiend”, were all instigated by owners firing or disciplining workers for raising legitimate (read: legal) grievances or talking union. In other words, the employers broke the law. So if “mom and pop” or whoever else can’t get their act together, unionization just might be the wake-up call they sorely need.
Some recent articles on the barista unionization campaign:
Baristas Rise Up: “We are always stronger together”
Baristas Rise Up in Halifax