By Andrew Stevens
Workers at the Best Western Seven Oaks Inn in Regina have been walking the picket line since December 28. In a show of solidarity, at least a hundred supporters joined the strike on the evening of January 6. Despite the support, however, Seven Oaks is still operational, even though workers and union representatives insist that the employer is losing business.
After two months of negotiations, talks broke down between management and UFCW Local 1400, the union representing about 113 Seven Oaks employees. Government-mandated conciliation – a requirement before job action can commence in Saskatchewan – was unable to bring a resolution to the dispute. And while both parties are willing to return to the table, sources in the union indicate that the hotel’s owner and general manager, Glenn Weir, is not willing to move on his most recent offer.
As the UFCW staff representative, Glenn Stewart remarked, “Just because you’re willing to have us sit across the table from you but say ‘I’m not going to do anything more,’ what’s the point?” Complicating matters is that both sides contest the issues that brought about the impasse.
Management’s latest wage offer was between 6 and 8 percent over three years, with non-gratuity occupations being offered the highest rate. Local 1400 members at Seven Oaks are employed at the hotel, the establishment’s off-sale liquor distributor, as well as Ricky’s Allay Grill. Considering that these workers average between $11 and $15 an hour, an 8 percent increase would still keep wages well below Regina’s most recent hourly living wage calculation of $16.46. “Anytime you accept increases that are less than the cost of living,” Stewart says, “you’re actually going backwards over time.”
The union insists that the employer aims to take health benefit language out of the agreement, which could diminish the quality of coverage if the employer elects to find a less expensive plan or provider. Employees are also being asked to pay more for benefits, from a fixed amount to 50 percent according to the UFCW, further eroding the value of wage increases.
Management, meanwhile, believes that union access to the premises is the real sticking point. According to a quote from Weir in the Regina Leader-Post, the union is “looking for what we term in the industry as unfettered access. They want to walk into the hotel, walk around and talk to everybody while they’re working.” Wier says that management countered by offering a private meeting room for the union and employees to meet multiple times per year. Officially the union is downplaying the significance of what is considered reasonable access to the workplace, but workers on the line emphasize the importance of this issue.
“We’re a service-oriented union, mainly because of the industries we are in, we have to be,” said Stewart. The staff representative recognized that high turnover and part-time employment in food services and accommodations demands building a close relationship with workers. “It’s the only way for those people to actually have a connection to the union because if they have a problem, they’re more likely to phone someone they’ve at least met once.” This is of serious concern for underage workers who are asked to serve alcohol and unsure about their right to refuse work that breaks Saskatchewan’s liquor laws. “So these girls come to us and say they can’t get ahold of him [the UFCW rep] because they’re not allowed to talk to him in the hotel”, said one worker.
Although the current agreement grants union representatives the right to meet with members, the employer restricts the amount of time these individuals can spend with workers at the hotel. Even then, a meeting schedule has to be arranged with management in advance.
A veteran employee of thirteen years and maintenance department shop steward, Steve (a pseudonym), voiced his frustration. The employer, he insists, “makes it difficult for you to even go and see your shop steward. I’m in the pool area, I’m not allowed to leave the area.” Stewart mentions that the Local had an agreement with the previous owner that permitted the union fewer restrictions when it came to meeting with members at work. That agreement was overturned in a previous round of negotiations. When Weir took over four years ago, management’s position was that they did not want the union in there at all, according to another shop steward, Mary (a pseudonym), who works in housekeeping and laundry.
Leading into the work stoppage, the employer had attempted to advance the dispute by calling for a lockout after a strike mandate had been secured by the union. “He went ahead and locked the doors”, Mary said. “It was illegal because he didn’t have enough time. He did it the same day and he was supposed to give us 48 hours notice.” Workers also claim that management was telling employees they were being dismissed and their benefits suspended. “Some people went to work for that reason,” said Stewart. But the union immediately paid for the cost of these benefits. “Including the ones that crossed. It’s just one of those things. We wanted to make sure that people had their benefits.”
Workers and the union both insist that the employer has failed to pay other entitlements like vacation pay. “This guy requested his vacation pay,” Stewart said, pointing to a migrant worker on the line. “He’s going back home to the Philippines in a week. It was supposed to be put in today. They didn’t do it.” Another worker confirmed that several members have experienced the same treatment. As the UFCW staff representative commented, “When employers do stuff like that to punish their workers, it’s pathetic. And there’s some people out there who say unions aren’t necessary. Yeah right.”
With negotiations at a standstill the work stoppage will likely continue for some time. Union access is recognized by stewards and others as a critical tool through which to build and maintain a community of workers at the hotel. This point should not be understated. Wage and benefit increases are certainly of great importance to workers employed in the food service and accommodation industries, but the capacity to wield influence at the bargaining table and during day-to-day operations is made possible by a strong bond between the rank-and-file and their union. And since new Canadians and migrant workers constitute part of Local 1400’s membership at the hotel the issue is especially salient.
The struggle to maintain decent wages and benefits in the hotel’s off-sale should also serve as a reminder of what working conditions might be like as the number of private liquor vendors in Saskatchewan expand. This dispute is as much about union strength in the workplace, and in the economy, as it is about advancing the immediate material interests of the over 100 workers at the hotel.
UFCW Local 1400’s struggle at Seven Oaks provides an important lesson to non-unionized service sector employees of what can be achieved through mobilization and collective bargaining.
Tell Best Western Seven Oaks to treat their employees with dignity and respect by returning to the bargaining table and negotiating a fair contract. Help the Best Western Seven Oaks workers achieve fairness by signing the UFCW petition here.