Stella's employees go on strike at Sherbrook Street location

Workers at Stella's on Sherbrook hit the picket line in front of the Winnipeg restaurant on Monday morning.

Union says strike isn't over wages, but lack of respect for employees and union bargaining

Members of United Food and Commercial Workers are joined by supporters on the picket line outside of Stella's on Sherbrook Street on Monday. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Workers at Stella's on Sherbrook Street are walking a picket line Monday morning.

Members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832 held signs as they walked in front of the Winnipeg restaurant Monday morning, their numbers bolstered by non-staff supporters holding flags and signs.

"This is not a strike about money, this is not a strike about wages, this is about working conditions and treatment of employees," union president Jeff Traeger said.

Stella's shows a "complete lack of respect" to its staff, he said.

The union's bargaining committee has been meeting with Stella's management since June to negotiate a deal for workers but has been unsuccessful.

Traeger said the employer didn't take the process seriously, didn't come to the table with any proposals for employees and "didn't address any of the concerns that we identified as being important to these workers."

Talks officially broke down on Friday and the most recent contract expired on Sunday.

The union's bargaining committee has been meeting with Stella's management since June to negotiate a deal for workers but has been unsuccessful, union president Jeff Traeger said. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The strike comes on the heels of two major upheavals for Stella's. In May, the Osborne Street location — the only other Stella's location that's unionized — was closed. And last week, Stella's announced it is shuttering its airport location after a drop in airline travel.

"The timing of this action is deeply unfortunate," said a statement emailed by the company on Monday morning.

"As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have now shuttered two locations, our Osborne and YWG locations, which has meant the loss of over 50 jobs within the Stella's family."

The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenging circumstances for restaurants across the city and to accept the current UFCW proposal "would be disastrous," the statement said.

"It would cause extreme economic harm to Stella's, adversely affecting all staff, customers, and suppliers. For the benefit of employees and the community, we hope that everyone can begin to pull in the same direction so that our business survives the current plight we find ourselves in." 

Until there is a significant change in connection with the strike action at the Sherbrook location, no further statements will be released, the email said.

It noted that, although the Sherbrook location is closed due to the strike, the other five locations are open. Stella's Bakery next door to the Sherbrook restaurant also is open.

Traeger said the union is "absolutely prepared" to return to the bargaining table "as long as they're not entrenched in the positions that they've taken at the table" so far.

As for the Stella's statement that the proposals are potentially disastrous in light of the pandemic impacts, Traeger called that nonsense.

"Some of them are around scheduling, which does not cost them money at all," he said, and some of the other proposals are things already in place at other Stella's locations "that could easily, easily take place here and not cost them any money at all."

There is only one monetary proposal, to do with wages, and it is as minimal as it can be, Traeger said.

"The rest are about them managing their business better."

On Oct. 1, the province is increasing minimum wage by 25 cents per hour, and the union wants all staff, whether they make minimum wage or not, to get an equivalent raise, so their pay isn't eroded.

"One thing this pandemic has actually taught us is that there's a value to these workers," Traeger said. "This employer gets [wage] subsidies from the provincial government, so why can't they pay [staff] a living wage?"

Employees have spoken against management practices at the Winnipeg-based restaurant chain in the past.

Staff at the Sherbrook location won their first union contract in October and within the first month, the union filed five grievances with the employer.

UFCW said workers were "punished" by the owners for starting the union, with management refusing to give a wage increase outlined in the collective agreement.

"This employer is one of the most disrespectful that UFCW 832 has ever dealt with. The strength and drive of these members continue to impress me," Traeger said.

In late 2018, an Instagram account called "Not My Stella's" began posting accounts from people who said they were past and current employees of the chain.

Many of those stories detailed allegations of abuse of staff, but also a culture of fear about reporting transgressions to management and cases where people had been fired for doing so.

"We have been in a constant battle with this employer since the Not My Stella's campaign happened. A campaign that pointed out the worst of many problems this employer has," Traeger said.

On Monday, one of the signs held by a picketer at the Sherbrook location read "Still not my Stella's."