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Calgary Starbucks becomes Alberta's first unionized location
Millrise Centre store has voted in favour of joining United Steelworkers
The Starbucks location at Calgary’s Millrise Centre has become the first unionized Starbucks in Alberta after a majority of its 32 workers voted in favour of joining United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1-207.
Sweetening the deal, Millrise is located in Premier Jason Kenney’s Calgary-Lougheed riding, as friend of the Orchard David Cournoyer pointed out online. Kenney has not been a friend of the labour movement, to put it mildly, so he is hopefully steaming like a latte right now.
Chey Watson, a barista at the newly-unionized store, hinted at some of the challenges the workforce faces in a news release announcing the results of the Alberta Labour Relations Board vote:
Our location has been more than willing to provide world-class service no matter the challenge we faced. Whether it was floods, tornados or even a pandemic, we worked through these challenges while maintaining a welcoming and affirming experience for our customers. But shipping issues, quality concerns and safety problems have slowly become daily issues instead of occasional challenges.
Jacob Dickenscheid, a barista who was one of the union drive’s leaders, told me organizing efforts began around the same time as the pandemic.
“It started when I was sitting on the couch with my wife and we were talking about the fact that she had joined a company, which was actually represented by the United Steelworkers,” Dickenscheid explained.
This led to a conversation at work with his colleagues about the value of collective organization and whether that’s something the Millrise workers should pursue. Dickenscheid then got in touch with USW organizers through his wife.
He said the union drive was less oriented around specific conditions in their workplace than in empowering workers, although there were some specific concerns. “When you're dealing with corporations of such a large size, how do you have meaningful conversations or make meaningful headway into what labor practices and safety should look like at your company when you can't actually go and speak to the head of the company?” Dickenscheid pondered.
He began facilitating further conversations with his colleagues about what an organized workplace would look like and the benefits they could incur from it. Dickenscheid faced the challenge of working 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. shifts, so he didn’t have the ability to speak to many workers face-to-face. “Thankfully, there was a core group of us who were really on board and wanted to let people know about what this could mean for us, so the only real struggle came from finding the time to get to talk to everyone,” he recalled. “We weren't out there to forcefully change anyone's minds.”
One workplace-specific concern Dickenscheid identified was insufficient supply of popular new menu items the company promoted heavily:
We're doing our best when we sell out and everyone likes it. And then we get proceeded to be yelled at by customers for the next week because the warehouse or whatever — we're rarely told what the issue is — has run out and they have nothing else to send us. So then we have to appease people until more comes back in. And stock issues like that have been kind of rampant last couple of years.
Another concern is that at the height of the pandemic workers were expected to wear masks to protect customers while customers didn’t have to reciprocate, which Dickenscheid said created a health and safety issue, which will need to be rectified for future pandemics.
Anyone who follows union drives at Starbucks know the company is adamantly hostile towards unions. Like other corporate behemoths, such as Amazon, that hostility is expressed passive aggressively, with management dangling existing benefits in front of workers and suggesting they could lose them in their first union contract.
Dickenscheid said the company implied employees could lose their ability to transfer seamlessly from one store to another if they move out of town. “It's kind of a scary thing for a lot of us partners, especially with such a young workforce and people who may not be planted in their forever city right now,” he said.
Evidently, this scare tactic was unsuccessful, but it does highlight something the workers will need to ensure is in their first collective agreement. “We want to make sure that the benefits that we have through the company now are protected,” Dickenscheid said. “They're not going to be something that get taken away because they're not written into a bargaining agreement, so we want to protect what we have now.”
A representative from Starbucks told CBC News that while they would prefer it if their stores didn’t unionize, they’re willing to work with unions.
"We will respect the process and will bargain in good faith guided by our principles. We hope that the union does the same,” the statement said.
This conciliatory rhetoric stands in stark contrast to the experience of workers at the first unionized Starbucks in Canada — in Victoria — whose store was informed they would be excluded from company-wide pay increases because those increases aren’t in the union contract.
Five stores in Lethbridge could be joining those ranks, with mail-in voting underway for 115 workers who are also seeking to join USW. Those ballots are due July 15 and results should be revealed not long after.
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