Not My Stella's campaign vindicates fired worker who tried to form union: activist

More than 15 years ago, concerns about workplace bullying and harassment pushed a worker at Stella’s restaurant in Osborne Village to try to organize his co-workers into a union.

Efforts to organize restaurant workers into unions face many obstacles, activists say

Patrick McGuire is a delegate with Industrial Workers of the World. He organized protests outside the Stella's Osborne Village location after a worker was fired after he tried to organize a union drive in 2002. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

More than 15 years ago, concerns about workplace bullying and harassment pushed a worker at Stella's restaurant in Osborne Village to try to form a union.

Workers were being fired with little notice and staff worked for long periods of time without proper breaks. The cook began talking to his co-workers about holding a meeting after work to talk about the idea.

That attempt to organize a union in late 2002 was crushed before it even started, a Winnipeg labour activist says.

"Management got wind of it and he was fired the same day," said Patrick McGuire, a delegate with Industrial Workers of the World, which the fired worker belonged to at the time.

The law forbids employers from firing staff for trying to form a union. The worker filed an unfair labour practice claim with the Manitoba Labour Board.

McGuire organized weekly protests outside the Osborne location during the Sunday brunch rush in an effort to get the worker rehired. Eventually, Stella's and the worker settled out of court in exchange for three months' wages. He never got his job back.

"We'd picketed for a number of months and there had been a number of things that happened that it was pretty much a poisoned atmosphere," McGuire said. "There were not enough workers in the workplace who wanted to join at that point, because it looked like it would be their jobs if they did."

Because the owners of Stella's were younger, many of the workers at that time were more willing to let things slide, McGuire said.

"That made them seem like they were friends rather than employers," he said. "Your boss is your boss, it doesn't matter whether they're vegetarian or like the same punk band as you."

As part of the settlement, the union agreed not to discuss the negotiations publicly. McGuire decided to speak out about the experience after current and former Stella's staff members launched an online campaign to highlight allegations of harassment, which led to the suspension of two senior staff members.

Christina Hajjar, 27, left, Kelsey Wade, 22, centre and Amanda Murdock, 36, who helped create an online campaign to bring attention to what they say is a toxic work environment at Stella's cafes in Winnipeg, speak to media. (Warren Kay/CBC)

"We felt that the context of what's going on right now vindicates us in our original attempt to unionize, and helps vindicate and lend solidarity to the workers who have come forward from Stella's," he said.

Vulnerable workers

In an interview with CBC News in January 2003, former Stella's co-owner Tomas Sohlberg said the worker was fired because he was not a "team player," not because he was trying to form a union.

Proving wrongful dismissal is difficult, McGuire says, because employers can use any number of justifications for firing a worker.

"You were late, you were unreasonable, people didn't like you, you didn't clean dishes properly: Workers do not have a lot of protection in that situation unless it's a very clear cut case," he said.

Concerns about workplace harassment and bullying led one Stella's employee to try to form a union in 2002. (Ron Boileau/CBC)

That lack of protection is one of the reasons why labour activists support unionization among restaurant workers, but it's also one of the reasons why organizing restaurant workers into a union is so difficult.

High turnover rates and odd shift schedules, which make it difficult for workers to communicate and build solidarity, also hamper the ability of restaurant workers to organize, says Emily Leedham, an organizer with the Manitoba chapter of Fight for $15 and Fairness, which advocates for a $15 minimum wage.

"It's an injustice because workers should have a union in any workplace, because your employer ultimately controls your life," she said.

Unions decertified

Past efforts to unionize restaurants in Winnipeg have met with mixed results.

Two Taco Bell/KFC locations on Regent Avenue West and on Portage Avenue near Unicity received union certification in September and October 2016, respectively. However, the certificate for the Portage Avenue locationwas revoked in June 2018.

A Tim Hortons location on Portage Avenue near Wall Street was certified in June 2015, followed by two other Tim Hortons locations on Lombard Place and Graham Avenue in August and September 2017, respectively. The certificate for the Portage Avenue location was revoked in November 2017.

In order to decertify a union, at least 50 per cent of employees in the bargaining unit must sign a petition and submit an application to the Manitoba Labour Board. If the board is satisfied that the application hasn't been instigated by the employer, it then holds a vote on whether to decertify the union.

The small size of many restaurants also presents a challenge for unions, which often look for workplaces with 100 employees or more in order to justify the effort and expense involved in holding a union drive, Leedham says.

Workers 'content'

Jonathan Alward, director of provincial affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, challenges the notion that restaurants don't organize into unions because workers are in a precarious situation.

"Our research has shown in the past that generally, employees, especially in those smaller business, like many restaurants, are the most content," he said.

The fact that many restaurants are small and close-knit means employees have better relationships with their employers and communicate better than in larger workplaces, Alward says. Many of the people working in restaurants, especially younger workers, choose to do so because it offers flexibility.

"Contrary to popular belief, a lot of these people in these workplaces are paid well, they enjoy the work that they're doing, they don't necessarily feel like it's a precarious workplace and I think that's reflective of the fact that we don't have a lot of unionized restaurants across the province."

Secret ballots

If employees feel they don't have a good relationship with their employers or are unhappy with their working conditions, they have an option to form a union, Alward says. He points out that legislation passed by Manitoba's Conservative government in 2016 mandates that workers vote by secret ballot in order to form a union, which he says means workers don't feel pressured to join a union if they don't want to.

Leedham points to the same legislation as one of the obstacles unions face.

"[Secret ballots are] traditionally used as a tactic to give the employers more time to do union-busting tactics, and to do employee intimidation and all that. It just adds another hoop for employees to go through to unionize," she said.

Leedham would like to see that legislation repealed, and a return card-check certification, by which workplaces became certified if a majority of employees signed a union card.

Even though employees at Stella's are not unionized, Leedham says, they are already functioning like one.  

"They are providing a unified voice, they are providing space for workers to feel safe to talk about these issues, and they are putting forward collective demands to the employer," she said.

About the Author

Cameron MacLean

Web Writer

Cameron MacLean is a journalist living in Winnipeg, Man. where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience covering news in the city and across the province, working in print, radio, television and online.