Hilary Beaumont

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Baristas push to unionize Halifax cafe

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Originally published by the Halifax Media Co-op on April 7.

Shay Enxuga talks about how his job was terminated. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont)

Shay Enxuga talks about how his job was terminated. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont)

About 120 people rallied outside the Just Us! Spring Garden Road location on Sunday in support of two workers who believe they were unfairly fired from the café in late March.

Several cars and one bus honked as they drove past the rally. Organizers provided free organic, fair-trade coffee to supporters, and encouraged them to drop a donation in a jar for the café’s current workers.

“All we’re asking is for our jobs back and for Just Us! to recognize our right to form a union,” Shay Enxuga told the crowd through a megaphone. “All we’re asking is for Just Us! to live up to its mandate and its social justice values.”

Enxuga and Elijah Williams told the Halifax Media Co-op they were dismissed March 27 after management questioned them about unions and organizing.

“Employees love their jobs,” a current café employee, who didn’t want to be named, told the Halifax Media Co-op. “They want respect and a voice.”

How did people react to the rally on Facebook and Twitter?

 

Elijah Williams, left, and Shay Enxuga, right, listen as Jason Edwards speaks to the crowd. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont.)

Elijah Williams, left, and Shay Enxuga, right, listen as Jason Edwards speaks to the crowd. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont.)

Decision to unionize in secret

Just Us! employees contacted the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) last December, SEIU Atlantic representative Jason Edwards said.

A “good portion” of staff from the café’s Spring Garden Road location attended the first organizing meeting on Jan. 10, he said. After that, they began meeting every two weeks.

Employees had brought up concerns about tipping and breaks at staff meetings prior to March 27, but didn’t think their concerns were addressed, four sources who support the union effort and have knowledge of the unionization attempt told the Halifax Media Co-op.

General manager Debra Moore said employees did not express any concerns about working conditions to management prior to March 27. There were many avenues the employees could have used to approach management about forming a union, she said. Management would have been “warm” to the idea, Moore added.

“Our real issue was that we didn’t feel our concerns were listened to, and we didn’t feel we had an avenue to bring them up without fear of losing our jobs—a fear that turned out to be very, very real,” Enxuga said at the rally. “We wanted protection, we wanted a grievance process, we wanted job security.”

Edwards said prior to March 27 employees had expressed concerns to him about job loss as a result of unionizing.

 

Third worker alleges she was unfairly fired

Shayna George, who spoke at the rally, alleged she was unfairly fired from Just Us! in January 2012 at the café’s Wolfville location after bringing up concerns about working conditions.

“You have a company teaching its employees to speak out against injustice, then denying them the right and ability to do so by silencing them and singling them out and firing them for organizing,” George told the rally. “Implementing policies like a third-party communications policy, which is a policy designed to keep employees from discussing their collective concerns, and effectively preventing a union, which is what happened to me.”

However, George said she could not prove the company fired her for attempting to unionize. She was told she needed to give 110 per cent or she would be let go.

George said the union drive in Wolfville was two years ago.

Employees at the Spring Garden Road location heard about her job termination, and that was the reason they decided to unionize in secret, Williams said.

In March, Williams said he believed management received a phone call about the unionization attempt.

Moore confirmed there was a significant phone call but declined to comment about it, on advice from her lawyer. She wouldn’t say what the phone call concerned.

When asked, “When did you first suspect employees were talking about unionization?” Moore responded: “So we didn’t suspect it at all. We were certainly observing some behavior, around people, well we weren’t even doing that. I mean, we didn’t know anything about a union at all.”

The unionization attempt “came out of left field,” she continued, because the level of engagement and transparency between management and employees had never been stronger.

 

Management asked about unions, workers say

By mid-March, staff had signed union cards, and organizers were readying to file for a vote, Enxuga and Edwards said. Organizing meetings became more frequent, and “more than 70 per cent” of employees were in favour of a union at that point, Edwards said.

In Nova Scotia, 40 per cent of employees must be in favour of unionization in order to file for a vote, Edwards said. To determine who is in favour, employees sign union cards.

The SEIU would not apply unless they were certain the vote would go through, because if they lose the vote, the union can’t approach employees for another year, he said.

Around March 11, current and former employees said their supervisor approached them and asked about unions.

During the last conversation Enxuga had with his team-lead (supervisor) before he said he lost his job, she asked him about “disgruntled employees meeting up outside of work talking about unions, grievances and labour boards,” he said.

Williams said his supervisor also asked him about unions in advance of his termination.

He said his team-lead “cornered” him on his break and “asked if I knew anything about secret meetings after the staff meeting [on March 6], of grievances that hadn’t been brought up and of union or labour board talks.”

“I gave her a non-committal answer because at that point I was really scared for my job,” he said.

In a letter sent to management Sunday, “the remaining organized Just Us! Spring Garden employees,” who did not give their names, wrote:

“We feel it is not coincidental that our team-lead questioned many of the Spring Garden employees about ‘disgruntled employees talking about labour boards and unions,’ and ‘employees meeting, talking about grievances,’ beginning as early as March 11, and continuing throughout the days leading up to the dismissals.”

“Bosses don’t ask employees questions about unions if they don’t think that employees are trying to start a union,” Enxuga said at the rally. However, there was no mention of unions when his employment ended, he said.

It is illegal for management to ask employees about unionization attempts, Edwards said.

On March 27, both workers said they were dismissed during two separate meetings when they came in for their shifts. They said management told them they were being dismissed because they were “no longer a good fit” for the company.

Moore said the end of their jobs was a “parting of ways.”

The SEIU filed a complaint against Just Us! on March 27 in Mississauga Ontario.

Read the full SEIU complaint here.

Both employees accepted payment for the following two weeks of full-time work they were legally entitled to. Williams said management called this money a “severance package.”

Williams had worked at the company for almost 18 months, and Enxuga had worked there for almost two years.

 

Workers allege they were unfairly let go

In his last performance review, Enxuga said he was told he was “the glue that held the café together.”

Enxuga said he received two records of employment: “One that was issued on Friday said the reason for issuing was dismissal, and the second that was issued on Tuesday, after they came out publicly and said there was no dismissal, said the reason for issuing was ‘other.’”

“What I do believe is that I no longer have a job because I wanted to form a union,” he told the crowd.

“This does not have to be a conflict,” Enxuga said through a megaphone. “This can be an opportunity for real change and growth—for Just Us! to prove how it’s different from Walmart, from Tim Hortons, from Starbucks.”

Just Us! is a co-op that specializes in fair trade organic coffee. Its slogan is, “People and the planet before profits.”

The company says one of its goals is: “to foster a more democratic workplace and supply chain, where everyone can participate and benefit.”

“I want them to give us our jobs back, and I want them to recognize the union so this sort of thing doesn’t happen to any future employees at any of the Just Us! coffee shops,” Williams said.


Will employees be re-instated?

After the union filed a complaint against Just Us!, an SEIU representative from Ontario met with Moore, and “made the union’s position quite clear,” the general manager said.

Moore said she and 15 other members then debated whether to reinstate the workers and how they would approach the ongoing unionization attempt.

The co-op’s democratic model is a consensus-based model of decision-making, she said, and they haven’t yet made a decision about reinstating the two former workers.

“Because we want to have a well-informed group discussion, it’s going to take a bit of time,” Moore said Saturday.

“In our meeting with the rep, we made it quite clear that we never have and never will be against the union in any way.”

Moore said Just Us! would support any future unionization attempts by the Spring Garden Road branch.

 

Is the Spring Garden Road branch struggling?

For each month of January and February, sales were down $5,000 from last year, Moore said Saturday.

She said they had “pretty much the same staffing” both years.

“Now was there talk about labour costs? There were, because of the fact that we were under, our sales were down by $12,000. Of course I did write an email that said to the team-lead, you know, you need to look at your labour costs because, we use a percentage, and they were higher by percentage than they were last year.”

She said the Spring Garden Road branch was trying to increase sales. They looked at labour costs and the cost of goods. They also wanted to increase mechandising, and better display their food.

They wanted to keep the jobs of the people who were there, Moore said.

“We were trying to figure out the team at Spring Garden,” she said.

Just Us! doesn’t do split shifts, Moore said. “We work really hard to put full-time jobs in.”

“If you talk to anybody in the retail industry right now, you’re going to hear that sales are down, businesses are really struggling right now, and we’re with them. So when a business is in that kind of a situation, you have to look at everything, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Moore confirmed the investors meeting scheduled for Sunday was pushed back to April 28 in Grand Pre. She said she rescheduled because she wanted to be at the Spring Garden Road café while the rally was happening.

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Written by hilarybeaumont

April 8, 2013 at 1:58 am

Posted in Culture, Social issues

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