Five myths about barista work and unionization

fired workersby Doug Nesbitt

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.

i was fired#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.

we are not disposable#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

14 responses on “Five myths about barista work and unionization

  1. I had a hard time continuing to read after in the first few sentences of point #1, one of the reasons for unionizing was dignity. Really? People can’t be dignified without belonging to a union? Sometimes the black and white/obstructionist view of many union members is their own worst enemy. Unions have a place in some industries for sure, but don’t become blinded by your own rhetoric.

    • “People can’t be dignified without belonging to a union?”

      Where does the article state that? Nowhere. You’ve wildly misinterpreted a single passage and on that basis told me “don’t become blinded by your own rhetoric”? It’s probably a good idea to understand the article first before criticizing it.

    • They have already faced indignities, and are seeking to reclaim their dignity. If their employees won’t comply then unionization is the only logical way to regain that dignity.

  2. I am not a barista, although I have applied to be dozens of times. I have never even been given an interview in a coffee shop, so I’ve been forced to work in fast food.

    Fast food is hell. These people were complaining about stolen tips and cut hours while I was doing the work of five men, and being docked 30 minutes of pay a day for a “break” I never had time to take.

    I did the orders, I did paperwork, I called companies and dealt with the money and I never made more than minimum wage. Sometimes I didn’t even make minimum wage.

    One day I called my boss with a problem I was faced with while making the schedule, and he told me that he would do something that was going to “make everyone’s life easier”. His solution was to hire a new manager, pay him 6 dollars more than me, and cut my hours from 36 to 7. Seven hours a week. Seven.
    I had to beg him to lay me off. I had to cry.

    I wish I could work in a coffee shop, I wish I could work somewhere where I could wear my street clothes, where I didn’t have to work 12 hour shifts for dirt cheap, where I could smile.

    If these guys unionize… I don’t know what will happen. But what it feels like for me is a group of already decently employed workers looking for more, while those of us who don’t fit the mould scrape the bottom of the barrel.

    I hate this! I wish I didn’t, these people are my friends, my peers! But I can’t help but feel betrayed. Like they’re only looking at what they don’t like about their (preferable) jobs, and ignoring everyone around them who doesnt have such a strong support network. I feel like I’m screaming to deaf ears.

    • I have had shit jobs like that, too. But I don’t understand why you are bitter or feel betrayed by the baristas. I think some of your conceptions about barista work being easier or better than fast food work is misinformed. These baristas are being fired, disciplined and blacklisted for trying to resolve grievances and for talking union. It’s obviously not that great since free speech doesn’t exist. It is management and ownership, not baristas, who are responsible for working conditions in the fast food industry. Unless employers are willing to radically alter working conditions for the better (which they won’t), the next best thing is for fast food workers to unionize. Which means recognizing that the barista organizing drive in Halifax is a space in which new ideas, new people, and new energy can be cultivated for future organizing drives in the low-wage sector.

      I also think you wrongly assume that the baristas in Halifax are doing this somehow at the expense of others. I’m sure they’d be absolutely supportive of a union drive and improvement of work conditions in fast food. I’m sure a lot of them have experience in fast food and know exactly what it’s like. It’s true – most people don’t have support networks when it comes to work. But if we recognize this, it’s our responsibility to build such networks. That means identifying management and ownership policies and behavior, not other workers, as the source of bad working conditions.

    • Hey Elizabeth, I sympathize with your lousy working conditions, but I also recognize that, as a fellow food and retail worker, the struggles of these barristas are similar to the struggles we should hope to advance in our similar jobs. There are workers worse off than myself or yourself I’m sure, but it doesn’t stand to reason that only the very most exploited and abused workers deserve to organize! In fact my union, the IWW, has had major campaigns lately in the US at Sbux coffee, and another at Jimmy John’s [a fast food chain] If there’s an IWW branch near you, consider checking them out for help you with organizing at your job! Solidarity with all workers, for our collective future!

  3. “Either you support a living wage and dignity in the workplace for all, or you don’t.”

    I support dignity in the workplace for all. There is legislation for that – Human Rights/Employment Standards Act.

    I support minimum wage legislation. I don’t understand what a “living wage” is. I presume it is higher than minimum wage.

    I believe in meritocracy. Your pay should be reflective of the skills/education and the value you add to the final product.

    Some jobs, by their nature, requires little education or training. There is no need to pay more than minimum wage for those jobs. If the businesses feels that the minimum wage is too low and they are loosing their most skilled and brightest, then they could chose to pay more at their discretion.

    I think the main question is: as a society, do we think all jobs deserve a “living wage” even though it comes at increased cost in goods and services (see for e.g. Scandinavian countries). If so, we should be looking at increasing the minimum wage.

    IMHO, unions are not the answer.

    • If you support dignity in the workplace, that means supporting a living wage. A living wage means being able to work full time and not be below the poverty line. Where I live, Kingston, Ontario, this would $17/hour. Ontario’s minimum wage is $10.25 (and less for servers and youth). No Canadian province has a living wage. Every province has thousands upon thousands of people working full-time hours, often in multiple jobs, and cannot break out of poverty. This is a disgrace considering the wealth being generated in Canada by workers (without which no wealth would be created). What are the human and wider social costs of this system of poverty? Increasing minimum wage to a “living wage” is exactly what is being pushed for by labour in many municipalities and provinces.

      The employment standards acts are totally insufficient at regulating and enforcing employers to maintain basic standards. This is one of the arguments in this article, and it only skims the surface of the problems confronting basic labour codes.

      • Hi Doug,

        “A living wage means being able to work full time and not be below the poverty line.”

        Using an online calculator, $10.25 per hour minimum wage translates to $18,655.00 per year (35 hours a week).

        Similarly, $17 per hour translates to $30,940.00 per annum.

        From my understanding, the poverty line in Ontario (for a single adult) is around $18,582.

        Thus, the minimum wage seems to be (just barely) above the poverty line.

        Am I missing something here?

        • Hi Stan,
          Thanks for raising that. The federal poverty line, or low-income cut off, as defined by Statcan would be $19,307 after tax in a city over half a million, $16,328 after tax in a city between 100,000 and 500,000. Again, after tax, it’s between $12,629 and just under $16,124 before tax for every urban centre under 100,000 and rural areas. These are dated 2011 figures (http://www5.statcan.gc.ca/cansim/a26?lang=eng&id=2020801&p2=46)

          In Ontario, a minimum-wage full-time job earning $18,655 minus taxes (federal income tax, provincial tax, CPP, EI) it’s $14,202 which is below the poverty line in every urban category. (http://www.paycheckcity.com/canada/coeatonca/cacalculator.aspx)

          At $17/hour, 35 hours per week, annual after tax income is $23,053.

          These figures are generous. They are based on 52 weeks of full-time work and are comparing 2013 tax rates with 2011 poverty lines for single adults, not anyone with kids or dependents.

  4. Union Starbucks in Surrey B.C. are located inside Safeway stores. They have their own Union member manager separate from Safeway. The workers are proud to be Union, they are well trained, confident and friendly with customers. The majority are putting themselves through university, this only possible because of the Union wage. A tall Union coffee costs 1.98, if you have a card refills are free. If you have your own container you save 10 cents a cup. So the persons 8.95 cup of Union coffee is just BS.

  5. Excellent commentary on unionization! As Doug said in # 3, it’s about ‘making concessions’ for fair treatment and creating guidelines to a workable and respectful relationship with the employer. The employer will still hold all of the power and control, however, unionization and a collective agreement attempts to assure that the workforce is treated like humans in an environment that often treats workers like slaves. Two thumbs up to this article and any and all attempts to unionize in working environments that do not offer an employee promise, respect, and opportunities to live above the line of poverty.

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