Coburg baristas await ruling on union vote

Photo: Hilary Beaumont

Halifax’s latest cafe unionization effort is facing an uphill struggle. Staff turnover in recent months and an agonizingly slow Nova Scotia Labour Board process have stalled a group of Coburg Coffee baristas’ efforts to form a union at the cafe.

In mid-June, 15 employees at the cafe on the outskirts of Dalhousie University cast ballots to decide whether to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Following the vote, the cafe’s openly pro-union baristas were certain of only six votes of those 15 that favoured forming a union.

The SEIU plans to contest five of the anti-union votes, arguing current employees didn’t cast them. The owners at Coburg Coffee plan to contest one of the pro-union votes on the basis that the person who cast it has left the cafe.

Since the vote, two openly pro-union staff quit their Coburg Coffee jobs and a third will soon follow, leaving three original workers who are openly in favour of a union. The cafe owners recently hired two new staff since the union vote to replace outgoing staff.

Though the workplace atmosphere was tense following the union drive, Coburg barista Sam Krawec says the mood in the cafe is calmer these days as they wait for the labour board process to move forward. Due to the dispute over votes, all 15 ballots remain sealed and uncounted and will only be opened after a labour board hearing takes place. The hearing date wasn’t set at press time.

“I’m just hoping that it comes quickly so we can start bargaining,” Krawec says of the labour board process. In the meantime he hopes more staff catch on to the benefits of unionization.

Krawec voted in favour of a union at the cafe because he felt he couldn’t voice concerns to the cafe owners, and he wasn’t treated equally with the employers’ family members, who also work at the cafe. He also believes a union would provide him and others greater job security.

In an email to staff a week before the vote, Coburg owners Kelly Irvine and Jane Merchant wrote that it was important for every employee to vote, and cautioned against being “overly influenced” by the idea that “having a union will guarantee certain benefits.”

“Have you considered whether the SEIU is an appropriate union to be representing you, and whether they have any knowledge about the specific issues regarding Coburg Coffee?” they ask in the letter. Problems are best resolved “through a direct relationship with you and not through a third party,” Irvine and Merchant wrote.

The Coburg unionization attempt has been tame so far compared to those at the Spring Garden Road Just Us and Quinpool Road’s Second Cup last year. Unlike the two other cafes the Coburg owners didn’t fire anyone in relation to union activity, so there was no need to organize protests, SEIU Atlantic representative Sebastien Labelle says.

Since unionizing, both Just Us and Second Cup have seen staff turnover. In their first collective bargaining agreement, baristas at both cafes have since seen their wages increase. Second Cup workers received a 47-cent-per-hour raise, from minimum wage to $10.82. Just Us baristas will get 25 to 30 cents more per hour starting in December, and will get another wage bump in 2015. Currently, Just Us baristas make between $10.75 and $13.45 an hour depending on seniority.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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