Unionization push at Canadian Starbucks gaining steam but facing similar barriers to US efforts

Unionization among Canadian Starbucks employees is starting to gain traction, organizers say, but much like their US counterparts, workers face barriers and alleged anti-union activity by the coffee giant.

More than a year before the recent wave of Starbucks unionization in the US began, a store in Victoria unionized with the United Steelworkers in August 2020 — and workers across the country took note.

Now, there are six unionized locations across BC and Alberta, and organizers say there are more in the works.

“I think the pandemic has caused people to look at their lives, their work, their community in a bit of a different way,” said Scott Lunny, USW’s director for Western Canada.

Since late last year, more than 250 stores south of the border have voted to unionize, according to the US National Labor Relations Board.

But a successful certification vote is just one step in unionizing; Workers don’t start paying dues until a contract has been negotiated. And although contract talks with some US stores have begun, no agreements have been reached, The Associated Press has reported.

Last Thursday, workers at more than a hundred US stores went on strike for the day to protest working conditions.

That makes the Victoria store the only location in North America to have a collective agreement with the company.

In some cases, stores in the same geographical area could organize in clusters as one bargaining unit, said Lunny. That’s what happened for two stores in Surrey and Langley, BC, which successfully certified as one bargaining unit. In Lethbridge, Alta., five stores held an unsuccessful certification vote.

Demonstrators protest outside a closed Starbucks location in Seattle this summer. Hundreds of the coffee chain’s locations in the US have faced union drives in recent months. (David Ryder/Bloomberg)

Lunny said service workers broadly have become interested in unionization over the pandemic and especially in recent months amid higher inflation.

In deciding to unionize, the Victoria workers wanted more support regarding harassment by customers and clearer communication about COVID-19 practices, said shift supervisor and union representative Sarah Broad.

Broad said she’s noticed a big difference since the contract was ratified, with “tenfold” improvements in health and safety. The workers also got wage increases.

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Earlier this year, Starbucks said it would give workers across Canada and other jurisdictions raises and other improvements. However, Broad said a letter was posted in the back room of the Victoria store explaining that they would not be getting the raise because of the union contract.

Starbucks spokeswoman Carly Suppa said in an email this is because the Victoria store’s contract includes annual wage increases.

USW filed a labor complaint on behalf of the Victoria store. It’s one of several labor complaints filed by the union on behalf of Starbucks stores, said Lunny, one of which — accusing the company of disciplining a union organizer in Lethbridge — is still active.

Starbucks workers at a location in Buffalo react as the vote tallies are announced in the location’s vote to unionize. (Joshua Bessex/The Associated Press)

Workers in the US have also been facing alleged anti-union activity, with the labor relations board asking a federal court to intervene in instances where Starbucks fired union organizers.

Suppa said Starbucks has never disciplined an employee for engaging in lawful union activity in the US or Canada.

The raise announced in May was also implemented in the US, except for those who voted to unionize or petitioned to hold a union election, The Associated Press reported in May.

In a statement posted to one.starbucks.com, a Starbucks website launched in February, the company said US labor law restricts the improvements it can make to wages and benefits during the unionization process and when a store has unionized, but said the recent improvements will likely be negotiated at the bargaining table.

WATCH | US Starbucks workers vote to unionize:

Unionizing efforts come to Starbucks, food service workers

Starbucks is the latest major food service company to see unionizing efforts spread across Canada recently.

York University labor law professor David J. Doorey said while Starbucks’ position has some legal basis under US labor law, it is also possible the labor board will see the company’s actions as unlawful reprisal for unionizing.

USW’s Lunny said he believes Starbucks always had the capacity to pay higher wages and invest more in health and safety, but “they really didn’t get around to it until there was a threat of unionization.”

“I do think (the raises are) about preventing unionization.”

Suppa said the company continues to invest in wages, benefits, policies, safety and training, and said Starbucks believes it can do more for its employees by working side-by-side instead of across a negotiating table.

On the Canadian version of its informational website, launched in July, the company urges workers to do research before signing a union card and says that if certified, workers will no longer be able to address their concerns with the company directly.

Starbucks workers in Central Canada are also interested in unionization but high turnover has been a barrier to successful drives, said Darlene Jalbert, the organizing co-ordinator for Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

It’s easier to certify in BC and some other jurisdictions, said economist and labor expert Jim Stanford, because they have “one-step” certification where a certain majority of signatures counts as certification.

In Alberta and Ontario, signatures are just a first step — the vote to certify can happen days, weeks or even months later, he said.

Sector is notoriously hard to unionize

Starbucks is a mix of corporate-run locations and licensed locations, such as the ones in grocery stores. There are almost 1,000 corporate locations in Canada and almost 500 licensed locations, where the employer is not Starbucks but the licensing company.

Stanford said hospitality is difficult to unionize — and keep unionized — in part because of turnover, but also because of the often-fragmented nature of companies like Starbucks, including the mix of corporate and licensed stores.

Although the Victoria store was the only unionized one in Canada when it was certified, there were a handful of unionized Starbucks locations in the past.

Stanford said although Starbucks employees are getting a lot of attention for their efforts, workers across all industries are turning to unions in the wake of the pandemic.

Broad said she thinks the movement in the US is helping fuel interest in Canada.

“I’m really hoping to see it spread across all of the provinces. And just for it to be more of a norm.”

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