September 5, 2013

Baristas of the world, unite!

By Kimball Cariou

Baristas are starting to organize in Nova Scotia, and fast food workers have become increasingly militant in the United States. These two developments are linked to the efforts by big corporations to squeeze out maximum profits, at the expense of the huge service industry workforce in North America.

The recent Nova Scotia case has drawn considerable media attention, after Halifax employees at the Just Us! coffee cooperative chain joined Local 2 of the Service Employees International Union. The chain says that any new shops that open will be unionized.

This is not the same as organizing a big transnational food company. Just Us! Co‑op set out in 1995 "to become Canada's first Fair Trade coffee roaster... a small, but bold experiment to show that the coffee business, and all businesses, could be done differently, putting `People and the Planet before Profits' locally and globally."

Even so, it took a sharp struggle to make this breakthrough. Last April, two Just Us! employees who went to the Labour Board claiming that they were fired for their union activities. Putting "people before profits" apparently did not immediately extend to front line employees, as sometimes happens in cooperatives.

On a larger scale, workers at two Second Cup cafes, a large cross-Canada chain, voted recently on whether to unionize. The results of that vote have not yet been released.

How large is this sector? In the United States, 11 million people are employed in the food service industry, with about 1.1 million here in Canada - or about 6% of the total workforce.

But working conditions and incomes in this sector lag far behind the average, largely because few food service workers are organized. There are important exceptions, of course, such as many employees at arenas in the major cities. However, these unionized workers are often employed only irregularly; at Rogers Arena, where the Vancouver Canucks play, hundreds of part-time workers operate concession stands, but only for five or six hours during each of 40-50 home games per year, plus the occasional concert event.

Statistics Canada reports that employees in the accommodations and food services sector are paid an average of about $16 per hour (compared to $24 for the entire workforce), with weekly incomes of about $370. In other words, a typical working week is between 20 and 25 hours. Take-home pay works out to less than $19,000 per year, forcing most to find other low-paid jobs to make ends meet.

The trend is similar in the United States, or perhaps even worse. U.S. food service workers average about $10.20 per hour, with total annual earnings of $20,000 for those employed full time. In both countries, about three-quarters of this workforce are women, and disproportionately come from racialised communities.

As the costs of housing, food, transportation and other necessities soar, workers in these jobs find it harder and harder to survive. And as the capitalist economic crisis continues, other employment options have become even less available.

This is certainly true for coffee shop workers. Traditionally - or at least since this sector boomed in the 1980s - many baristas have been students, pouring espressos and lattes part-time to help pay for tuition and living expenses. Starbucks and other chains and independent outlets were happy to hire students, relying on a relatively cheap workforce that turns over regularly.

That pattern began to change in the 1990s, when baristas started to organize for better pay and hours. One of the outstanding examples was in Vancouver, where 150 employees at twelve Starbucks franchises joined the Canadian Auto Workers. The CAW won some improvements in job language and shift scheduling thanks to an organizing drive in 1996.

But the company resisted changes in wages or benefits at the unionized stores. Starbucks employed classic employer techniques, stalling negotiations while cutting down the hours of pro-union workers, or finding excuses to replace them with new employees. The CAW fought back with an "un-strike" and other creative tactics, but by 2007 the union was decertified at its seven remaining outlets.

At the time, the CAW said Starbucks never had any interest in trying to work with the union. High staff turnover rates affected union strength, as many pro-union workers ended up leaving after a year or two. Even so, the union considered Starbucks a "pretty good employer" by the "abysmal" standards of the service sector. But "when you look at their profitability, they could actually pay their people a living wage and still make money but they don't do that," a CAW representative said.

Today, of the 80,000 workers employed directly by Starbucks worldwide, fewer than 130 are currently union members.

Will the Second Cup and Just Us! baristas launch a significant change in the food services industry? Time will tell, but clearly, their success could have a huge positive impact for twelve million workers and their families across the continent.

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