Baristas aim to spread the spirit of union organizing to coffee shops throughout the city
Even though their beans may be fair trade, local coffee shops like Waves, Blenz and JJ Bean continue to be staffed by precarious, non-union workers, a fact which a committed group of baristas is out to change.
The most recent attempt at union organizing in Vancouver coffee shops has taken place at JJ Bean, a hip coffee chain with nine locations in Vancouver and a tenth in North Vancouver. As the chain grows, employees are increasingly concerned about the erosion of their rights, and are seeking to associate with the United Food and Commerical Workers.
"JJ Bean builds up a contract with you when you first start that makes you feel respected," said Jane X, an employee who requested that I not use her real name because she fears her job will be impacted if she speaks out. "But it doesn't actually protect you at all, it's like a false sense of security," she said.
Interestingly, the workers' demands are not about wages or benefits, both of which they say are fair. Instead, they say they're seeking to unionize in order to change the power dynamic between owners, managers and employees.
When the company printed a calendar which featured photos of baristas without seeking their consent in late 2010, 10 employees signed a letter demanding an apology. The two workers I met with claimed the response to the employees' complaint wasn't serious, and that instead of an apology, the people who signed the complaint were individually interrogated, and told that they had personally offended JJ Bean founder John Neale.
"It was handled so unprofessionally, it was like an indicator that if anything like this happened in the future, we would not be protected," said Jane. After the calendar issue surfaced, employees made their first contact with the UFCW, and in January of this year they started organizing a union drive across all of JJ Bean's locations.
Over the next three months, John X and a half dozen other employees strove to have other café workers sign union cards, falling just short of the 45 per cent required to move to a vote to unionize the shops. Some locations, like the new store in the Woodwards building, had 100 per cent support for a vote to unionize, while others came in under the mark.
The employees I met with complained about irregular hours, a merit based system for promotions and raises, and a lack of checks and balances around greivances in the company. Since the drive, they say that there's been an especially high turnover at locations with a high percentage of card signers.
Even though their first attempt at unionizing didn't succeed in signing up enough interested workers, they said they've made strides through outreach across the company.
For their part, JJ Bean claims they're accommodating those within the company who wish to unionize. "We're trying to listen to see what the majority of people want to do, that's basically our stand on that," said Neto Franco, JJ Bean's General Manager.
Contrary to the claims of workers, Franco said he wasn't aware of any anti-union posters being posted in any of the shops, posters which employees say dissuade workers from organizing.
For Franco, the family aspect of the company remains strong. "It is a family business, it's a family owned business, and I think everybody, or the majority of people that work for the company, consider JJ Bean as a family," he said.
But one of the key elements to changing the culture of power within the organization, the workers told me, is to get away from the idea that JJ Bean -which has upwards of 180 employees and is on track to expand- is a family business.
Pamphlets, leaflets, facebook, blogging, and face to face conversations are the main tools of the workers' outreach strategy, which is focused around creating a positive dialogue with workers around organizing in the workplace.
"After you have 130 conversations [with coffee shop workers], and month long debates by text message and facebook, patterns begin to emerge," said John, referring to his interactions with fellow workers. He says there are many general misconceptions about unionization among young workers.
"Many people [who work at JJ Bean] don't self identify as being vulnerable workers," said Jane. "People feel like they're in transition, so they don't feel stuck," she said.
A previous union drive at Waves coffee shops in Vancouver also failed, but John and Jane are hoping to change that. "We're planning on expanding our campaign to all the trendy coffee shops in Vancouver," said John.
"A lot of people working in coffee shops are pretty concerned with being cool," said Jane. "We want to change people's base ideas about their political affiliation, and unions," she said.
If these folks have any say in it, union organizing is making a DIY comeback through home made posters, rock and roll shows and word of mouth.