By David Bush
On August 15 workers at SPoT Coffee in downtown Toronto voted on joining the Service Employees International Union local 2. While the vote has yet to be counted, employees and the union are both confident that the vote will go their way.
In June of this year while volunteering for the NDP during the provincial election, SPoT Coffee employee Dave Clark got to talking with some of his fellow volunteers about unions. The NDP volunteers, who were CUPE and OPSEU members, told Clark that unions weren’t just for bigger firms and government workers. They suggested he research about cafe workers unionizing in Halifax.
Rather than just ask for things that will never be delivered, we wanted the ability to negotiate
After reading up about Baristas Rise Up, Clark met up with some of his fellow employees to talk about the possibility of unionizing. For Clark, who had been working for SPoT Coffee on and off since 2011, the reason he wanted to unionize was simple: “it was about having a voice, having the ability to be on a level playing field and to sit down with our employer. Rather than just ask for things that will never be delivered, we wanted the ability to negotiate.”
For a Better Workplace
Susannah Mackay, a SPoT Coffee employee of 10 months, stated she supported the union drive because, “I want to feel like my time is valued and the effort that I put forward at work is valued. If I feel disrespected or if I feel like I am not receiving the respect or safety I require, I should do something about it, not just complain.”
Mackay explained that workplace safety was one of the key issues for her. She describes an instance where she sliced her finger at work and realized the café didn’t have an adequate first aid kit. “Safety is the first thing that needs to be addressed. We need a full first aid kit, mats on the floors, a budget for non-slip shoes, burn gel in the kitchen and proper training. It is just really basic stuff that would make this workplace better,” said Mackay.
Kyle O’Connor, a SPoT Coffee employee since March, explained that the company was not thrilled when they learned about the union drive. “They (the company) panicked. They pretty much did everything in the textbook. They said we were a family and that the union is going to come in and control everything. They sat us all down one by one and told us why we should vote no,” said O’Connor.
Clark, O’Connor and Mackay all point to scheduling, training, safety, pay, and clear rules as to why they wanted to unionize.
“I supported the union because it can’t hurt. It is like a safety net. If you ask for something from head office and don’t get it, the union is there as a back-up,” said O’Connor.
SPoT Coffee is a New York state based cafe chain and roastery with approximately 11 stores, including the one in Toronto. It is actively looking to expand into the Canadian market. SPoT Coffee in Toronto has 16 non-managerial employees. The workers and the SEIU organizer who helped with the union drive, Anu Sharma, are very confident that they will win the union certification vote. Clark, Mackay and O’Connor described their co-workers sentiments as nearly universal in support of the union.
The company is challenging the vote, claiming the application was incorrect and at best can only cover that individual store, not future stores. The company is arguing that the workers are actually employed by Hot Spot Concord Place Inc, which appears on their paycheques, not SPoT Coffee. TD Waterhouse actually lists Hot Spot Concord Place Inc as a subsidiary of SPoT Coffee.
Sharma said, “this is clearly a delaying tactic. And we won’t back down until we get a city-wide agreement from them that ensures new SPoT Coffee locations are unionized.”
The Ontario Labour Relations Board ruling and ballot-counting will occur in November.
People think they have to put up being treated a certain way or have their safety risked or working for horrible wages. You don’t have to put up with that. It doesn’t have to be this way
Despite the delay, Clark and his coworkers have felt empowered throughout the entire process even though only a handful of the workers have had any experience with unions before. “Young workers are finding themselves in service sector jobs for longer and longer and they don’t want to feel like they have no say,” said Clark.
Clark’s only regret about the union campaign is that he wished he and his fellow workers started it earlier. “If other café workers want to form a union they should read up about their industry, look at what is happening in Halifax. Talk to your coworkers and reach out to a union for advice.”
“People think they have to put up being treated a certain way or have their safety risked or working for horrible wages. You don’t have to put up with that. It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Mackay.