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Unionization among Canadian Starbucks workers is beginning to gain ground, organizers say, but like their American counterparts, workers face barriers and alleged anti-union activities from the coffee giant.

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

Now there are six union venues in BC and Alberta, with organizers saying more are in the works.

“I think the pandemic has made people look at their lives, their jobs and their communities in a different way,” said Scott Lunny, USW director for Western Canada.

More than 250 stores south of the border have voted to join the union since late last year, according to the US National Labor Relations Board.

But a successful certification ballot is only one step in forming a union; employees do not start paying dues until a contract has been negotiated. And while contract talks have begun with some US stores, no agreements have been reached, The Associated Press reports.

Last Thursday, workers at more than 100 stores in the US went on strike for a 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 geographic area could organize into clusters as one bargaining unit, Lunny said. That’s what happened for two stores in Surrey and Langley, BC, that were successfully certified as one bargaining unit. In Lethbridge, Alta, five stores held a failed certification ballot.

Protesters protest outside a closed Starbucks store in Seattle this summer. Hundreds of the coffee chain’s US branches have faced union campaigns in recent months. (David Ryder/Bloomberg)

Lunny said service workers in general have become interested in unionizing during the pandemic and especially in recent months amid higher inflation.

In deciding to join a union, Victoria workers wanted more support regarding customer harassment and clearer communication about COVID-19 practices, said sports director and union representative Sarah Broad.

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

But it hasn’t all gone smoothly. Earlier this year, Starbucks said it would give workers across Canada and other jurisdictions pay 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 a raise because of the union contract.

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

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, Lunny said, one of which — accusing the company of punishing a union organizer in Lethbridge — is still active.

Starbucks employees at a Buffalo location react as the vote count is announced in the location’s vote to unite. (Joshua Bessex/The Associated Press)

Workers in the US have also faced alleged anti-union activity, with the Labor Relations Council asking a federal court to intervene in cases where Starbucks has fired union organizers.

Suppa said Starbucks has never penalized an employee for participating in legal union activities in the US or Canada.

The wage increase announced in May was also implemented in the US, except for those who voted for unions or petitioned for union elections to be held, The Associated Press reported in May.

In a statement on one.starbucks.com, a Starbucks website launched in February, the company said U.S. labor laws limit the improvements it can make to wages and benefits during the union process and when a store has joined a union, but said the recent improvements will likely be negotiated at the negotiating table.

Union efforts are coming to Starbucks, food service workers

Starbucks is the latest major food service company whose union efforts have recently spread across Canada.

David J. Doorey, a professor of labor law at York University, said that while Starbucks’ position has a legal basis under US labor law, it is also possible that the labor council will view the company’s actions as unlawful retaliation for unionization.

USW’s Lunny said he believes Starbucks was always able to pay higher wages and invest more in health and safety, but “they didn’t really get around to it until a union threat loomed.”

“I think (the increases 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 rather than at a bargaining table.

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

Starbucks employees in Central Canada are also interested in unionizing, but high turnover is hindering a successful campaign, said Darlene Jalbert, the organizing coordinator 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 a “one-step” certification where a certain majority of signatures count as certification.

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

Sector is notoriously difficult to unify

Starbucks is a mix of business-run and licensed locations, such as those in supermarkets. There are nearly 1,000 business locations in Canada and nearly 500 licensed locations, where the employer is not Starbucks, but the licensing company.

Stanford said it’s difficult to join — and keep — a union in the hospitality industry partly because of turnover, but also because of the often fragmented nature of companies like Starbucks, including the mix of corporate and licensed stores.

While the Victoria store was Canada’s only unionized location when it was certified, there have been a handful of unionized Starbucks locations in the past.

Stanford said that while 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 fueling interest in Canada.

“I really hope it spreads across all provinces. And only to become more of a norm.”

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