By Alyssa Julie - Global News
Posted August 27, 2022 10:00 am - Updated August 27, 2022 10:14 am
Throughout the pandemic, North Americans have been rethinking their relationship with work. At businesses like Starbucks and Apple, some workers have sought to form unions or join unions. Alyssa Julie explains what’s behind workers’ renewed push to unionize their workplaces and whether it’s likely to lead to a stronger labour movement – Aug 27, 2022
Jacob Dickensheid has worked at Starbucks for over a decade.
His last 12 years were spent at a café in southwest Calgary that made headlines in early July when his fellow baristas voted to join the United Steelworkers Union – becoming the first Starbucks shop in Alberta to take this step. Dickensheid says he and his colleagues ramped up organizing efforts at the outset of the pandemic because they feared the company wasn’t taking their health and safety seriously enough.
“Starbucks made sure that we protected our customers, as they should, by wearing masks and putting safety protocols in place there. But there were no mandatory safety protocols in place, for customers, to make sure that they were protecting us who were serving them,” he said.
“As soon as things started to slow down with the pandemic, Starbucks, without even asking, took away all of the plexiglass to recreate that third-place experience for the customers.”
This has been a common refrain among workers over the past two years, according to Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress. She says labour unions have reported an increasing number of calls from workers, like Dickensheid, who are eager to organize their workplaces.
“We’re seeing a lot of young people, in particular, being interested in signing a union card,” she says.
“And I think that’s partially because during the pandemic, we’ve seen that those workers who are often service sector workers in restaurants, retail locations, have had to deal with the public, have not necessarily had access to personal protective equipment during the pandemic, have not had access to paid sick time. And quite frankly, their wages are not keeping up to inflation.”
Statistics Canada data shows that the average hourly wage for a union employee in 2021 was $33.19 an hour, compared with $28.62 an hour for a non-unionized employee. Employees who are part of a union also often have greater job security, yet the percentage of Canadians who are part of a union has been shrinking, driven by declining unionization rates in the private sector (union membership remains strong in Canada’s public sector). Many workers have shifted out of sectors that traditionally had high union coverage, such as manufacturing, into those with much less union coverage, such as retail or hospitality.
However, as the pandemic has raged on, both Canadians and Americans have been rethinking their relationship with work. In fact, according to a new survey by ADP Canada conducted with Maru Public Opinion, about a quarter of Canadians took on a new career in the past few months.
At the same time, businesses in sectors like retail and food services that have traditionally had low union coverage have made headlines, especially in the U.S., as workers have fought to start or join unions. In one high-profile example in April, more than 2,600 workers at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse voted to join Amazon’s first U.S. union (a hearing is now underway to determine whether that historic victory will stand). Starbucks locations across the U.S. have also unionized, as have employees at other companies, like Cineplex and Apple.
Small victories like this are exciting, according to one Canadian expert, but whether or not they will translate into a larger shift in the labour movement is still up for debate. He points to some big hurdles the movement would have to navigate, but remains optimistic that there could be significant gains in the coming months and years.
1:42Employees at some Starbucks locations in the US go on strike
“It’s expensive to organize employer by employer when it’s small workplaces. But we have to keep in mind, historically, that no one ever thought that unions could organize auto plants,” explains Steven Tufts, a labour geographer at York University, who studies the impact labour organizations have on the economic landscape.
“It wasn’t until those workers themselves formed new organizations, formed new types of unions to represent industrial workers that they put in the framework to actually organize in large numbers.”
Tufts says workers at businesses like Starbucks and Apple are still experimenting with the union structures and models that would allow them to most efficiently unionize a patchwork of retail and fast food businesses.
He says millions of workers would have to organize in order to return union density to the same level it was after the Great Depression. In the years following that historic downturn, thousands and thousands of workers joined unions each month. Tufts says there was a need to hold employers to account and regulate the labour market so that North America wouldn’t be gripped by the same staggering job losses and widespread poverty.
In the decades since, there have been efforts to boost union membership and improve working conditions, most notably in the 1990s with the Justice for Janitors movement, but nothing has had the momentum of the post-Depression era.
“Is there a way to organize unions so that you’re representing workers and not the job the worker has, so that if the worker changes jobs, they’re still a member of that union and can still be paying into a pension plan or receiving benefits,” he offered, as an example of a union structure that might help boost union coverage.
Bruske says rising inflation and affordability concerns, such as the cost of housing in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, are leading workers to remain longer in jobs that might traditionally have had high turnover – and as a result, they are looking to improve work conditions.
“Some of those workers that would traditionally utilize these kinds of jobs as stepping stones are finding themselves in those positions for longer periods of time and are looking to improve that particular job situation,” she explains.
Dickensheid says he is trained as an animator but has continued to work at Starbucks because he enjoys it. He also points to employee stock options as another reason he has remained at his post, choosing to fight to join a union rather than switching jobs.
He says the wait between signing union cards and holding a vote was the most difficult part of the process, with the company using that time to put out information meant to dissuade his co-workers from joining the union – information that he said “was partial truths at best.”
In the end, 32 baristas at the Millrise Centre coffeehouse voted to join the United Steelworkers Union in a mail-in ballot.
Some provinces in Canada, like British Columbia, have made changes to their laws to remove the need for a vote if the number of workers signing union cards passes a certain threshold. In B.C., there is automatic certification if at least 55 per cent of employees have signed a union card.
Unions like UFCW Canada oppose this dual-point system. Debora De Angelis, the union’s regional director for Ontario, has called the process “undemocratic,” adding that by signing union cards workers have already shown they want to join a union.
Tufts says what’s needed to prompt widespread changes to North American labour laws – and to boost union power – is labour militancy. He points to the sit-down strikes at General Motors between 1936 and 1937, which led to the unionization of the automobile industry and won widespread community support.
This string of historic strikes started at a plant in Flint, Mich., and led to arrests and confrontations with police before spreading to other plants. It ended after 44 days and led to the rapid unionization of the industry.
“That doesn’t happen simply through signing a union card. It happens through struggle,” Tufts explains. “It happens through the willingness to withdraw your labour and not go to work, in order to force the employer to give you a better deal. And that’s something that we really haven’t seen yet and is really hard to do in a place like Starbucks.”
Tufts says such a momentous shift in the wider labour movement would require a change in our attitudes toward the workers who are bagging our groceries and pouring our coffees. We might just need to join them on the picket line.