Lessons from the one unionized Starbucks in Canada

A single Starbucks location, in Victoria, B.C., successfully organized in 2020. Now several others are hoping to join them.

A wave of unionizing has been sweeping across the U.S. and Canada, hitting corporate giants like Amazon and Starbucks.

And it’s being led largely by young people. A recent op-ed in the L.A. Times declared that “A new generation is reviving unions.”

At a Staten Island warehouse this past spring, a former Amazon worker successfully spearheaded the company’s first ever union. Amazon has long faced accusations of anti-union tactics, including surveillance, false messaging, and intimidation. But other unionization campaigns are taking place at Amazon warehouses across the States and here in Canada, including one in Montreal.

It’s been happening with gig workers, too. In 2020, couriers with the food-delivery app Foodora won the right to form a union in Ontario, despite having initially been categorized as independent contractors. Not long after, the company pulled out of Canada completely — and the couriers ended up with a $3.4 million settlement.

And there are more than 200 Starbucks locations involved in union organizing right now, with over 50 stores now being certified.

But of the over 1,400 Starbucks locations in Canada, a single café in Victoria, B.C., is the only one that has a union. There are, however, a group of five stores in Lethbridge, Alberta, one in Calgary, and one in Surrey, B.C., that have applied for certification, the latter two just last week.

But will they get it? Will that unionized location in Victoria break ground and set the standard for the chain — and maybe other chains, too — across Canada? Or will corporate snuff it out before the union contagion spreads?

On this week’s CANADALAND, we speak to some of these Starbucks workers about the conditions that led them to organize for better protections — and how a flurry of anti-union messaging from head office was not enough to deter them:

Here are some edited excerpts from what we were told. Starbucks didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

“It was really scary. A lot of us were really anxious about getting sick and dealing with, like, customer harassment. We were all of the sudden being told that we were essential, after years of being told that these were unskilled jobs for teenagers.”

— former Starbucks barista Izzy Adachi, who helped organize the only location in Canada to currently have a union, on Douglas Street in Victoria, B.C.

“Some of my coworkers didn’t feel particularly safe going to work with customers not wearing masks. That spurred a lot of discussion. And then I think another factor with the pandemic was that we received hazard pay for a couple months. We all got a $3 raise, if we came in to work. It was optional at that point, if we wanted to work or not, and if you did work, you were making $3 more an hour. And then that stopped. The pandemic wasn’t over — and not the sort of not-over that it is now — but it was, like, really not over. We stopped getting the hazard pay, and I think that sort of made a lot of people be like, ‘Hang on, they were just able to pay us more. What if they could just always do that?’ So I think in a lot of ways that sort of opened people’s eyes to the possibility that, like, ‘Oh, they actually can implement a lot of change really quickly if they have to.’”

— a worker organizer at one of the five Starbucks locations in Lethbridge, Alberta, that have applied for union certification, whose identity we agreed to conceal due to concerns for their job security

“Starbucks and their managers would almost never stand up for us, prior to our union, and once that became their obligation, they had to”

“Once we applied for certification, we got a lot of messages from Starbucks corporate about how we don’t need a ‘third party’ to represent us and how we’re breaking up the Starbucks family and that they were disappointed in our decision to join a union and all sorts of stuff that, like, corporations pull out. We would just get these surprise visits from higher-ups in the company, and they would sort of introduce themselves and try and talk to the workers about the issues that people were facing. And because of the way that B.C. labour law works, they weren’t allowed to be super overt by saying stuff like, ‘Hey, don’t vote for the union.’ But they would always be very, like, suggestive about what could be done and how it’s always better to have a direct relationship with management. Which is funny because, for a lot of these managers, this was the first time any of them had ever talked to us.”

— Izzy Adachi

“With transnationals in retail, like Walmart, they have almost like a multi-prong approach to pushing back against efforts by their employees to join the union. The first kind of approach is at the store level. The store manager will get wind of his employees having meetings with the union, and he’ll start to find out that there’s an organizing drive within the store. And then the manager will typically find people within the store who he knows are going to be loyal to management’s interests and start organizing an almost counter sort of movement in the store. The next step is that they will use their infinite legal budget to do everything they can through the labour board and the courts to stall any sort of progress made. And then, if all that is not effective in seeing the workplace not become unionized, they’ll just close the store, or they’ll rip out the department within the store where the workers have maintained solidarity.”

— Derek Johnstone, special assistant to the National President at United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada

“One of the things about the law is that there are grey areas. Pretty much all management that organizes, say, a town-hall meeting to tell workers why they shouldn’t unionize, they probably do consult with their lawyers beforehand, and they do know the law. So it’s pretty rare that you get a direct threat, although one could argue that if you say, ‘Hey, if you unionize and push for a wage increase, we may not be able to afford that, this may threaten the survival of this company,’ that there is an implied threat there. There is an obvious power difference between managers and workers. And when managers say, ‘We are aware of this union drive. We are opposed to it,’ that is something workers take note of. And if management is unhappy, well, the obvious implication is that your ability to remain at that company is going to be compromised.”

— journalist Mitch Thompson, who’s covered anti-union campaigns for PressProgress and elsewhere

“A large part of why we felt like we needed a union was because the only people who are gonna keep us safe is ourselves. Starbucks and their managers would almost never stand up for us, prior to our union, and once that became their obligation, they had to. It was enforceable through our contract. My message to other Starbucks partners [employees] who are thinking about getting organized is that nothing changes if nothing changes. And Starbucks is not going to hold themselves accountable. That’s our job as their partners. And if they want a real partnership, they should prove that, through allowing us to unionize without impediment.”

— Izzy Adachi

Top image includes a photo of employees at the unionized Starbucks location at 3180 Douglas Street in Victoria, courtesy of the United Steelworkers, as well as a Google Street View screen grab of the same store’s exterior.

Correction (June 14, 2022, at 12:55 p.m. EDT): This post, and the episode it accompanies, originally described the Starbucks on Victoria’s Douglas Street as the first location in Canada to have a union. In fact, while it is currently the only Canadian location to have a union, several stores did organize starting in the mid-1990s but were no longer unionized by the time the Douglas Street location applied for certification in 2020.

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