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If Kramer worked at Second Cup…

Movement to unionize ‘vulnerable’ workers, increase wages grows – and this time it feels different

By Todd Humber

In the labour relations world, all eyes are on a Second Cup coffee shop in Halifax where employees have applied to the province’s labour board in an attempt to unionize.

It’s hard to think about service industry workers trying to unionize without thinking about Cosmo Kramer.

Yes, that Kramer — Seinfeld’s neighbour on the hit TV show who, among other things, was famous for not having a job.

But in season nine of the show, Kramer revealed he actually worked at H&H Bagels — but he had been on strike for the last 12 years. The labour distruption came to an end because the minimum wage had finally risen to what the union was originally demanding, so he was returning to the job.

It made for a funny scene, but also underscored one of the hurdles facing workers in the service industry — they often lack leverage. H&H Bagels continued on just fine for a dozen years with a striking workforce. (And H&H didn’t seem to care when Kramer immediately walked off the job after returning because it refused to give him Dec. 23 off to celebrate Festivus.)

Back in the real world, the Second Cup workers want to join Local 2 of the Service Employees International Union, as outlined in the cover story written by Sabrina Nanji in the Aug. 6 issue of Canadian Labour Reporter (CLR). Their move comes in the wake of two baristas from a Just Us! café who successfully did the same, wrote Nanji, news editor for CLR.

Employers and unions should be watching cases like these closely because they are a bellwether for where the labour movement wants to go.

Unifor, the megaunion formed by a merger of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP), has clearly stated that one of its goal is to organize vulnerable, low-wage earners who feel like they’re stuck in dead-end jobs.

In last year’s Labour Day message, CAW national president Ken Lewenza said he was “most concerned” about these workers, and previous reports said Unifor will have a $50 million war chest to organize these workers.

There’s a perception this is going to be an uphill battle for unions, because so many minimum-wage earners in the service industry are young and view the jobs as temporary.

In an interview with Canadian Labour Reporter, Howard Levitt, an employment lawyer with Levitt LLP in Toronto, called unionizing these workers a “hopeless cause.”

“At the end of the day, there’s no real fixed employee group that are going to develop historic employee loyalty to a union, if they ever get in,” he explained. “They’re very hard to unionize, the young employees who generally work there. Young workers have not been a fertile breeding ground for unionization in this country, which is one of the biggest problems the union’s been having, so that’s the target market.” 

Levitt makes a strong point, but a tough economy and public perception could change the game. People are staying in these jobs longer than they planned.

I have seen planty of resumés in recent years from laid off, seasoned professionals who are holding down jobs at places like Starbucks and Home Depot to pay the bills, and some of them have been there for years. They would relish an opportunity to unionize and improve their plight in a job they may never be able to leave.

Unemployment remains stubbornly high among the 15 to 24 age group — it stood at 13.8 per cent in June, according to Statistics Canada — so disenfranchised young workers may also start to feel that their “McJob” is turning into a “McCareer,” which would make them far more likely to be loyal to a union.

The idea of paying workers a “living wage” isn’t just a Canadian phenomenon. There is a campaign in the United States to double the wages of McDonald’s workers to US$15 per hour. There have been conflicting statistics about what that would do to the cost of a Big Mac, but one estimate by the Employment Policies Institute suggests it would mean a price increase of US$1.28 to US$5.27. (A well-cited report by the Huffington Post said doubling wages at the Golden Arches would mean just a US68¢ jump in the price, but the Post itself has retracted that figure because of some bad math on the part of a researcher.)

But the point really isn’t what the increase will be, and whether or not consumers will pay it. It’s the fact the plight of minimum wage workers has caught the attention of the media and public, and Unifor is set to arrive on the scene with a well-timed philosophy and an ample war chest.

While unions may have difficulties organizing precarious workers in the past, there is a perfect storm brewing that, in all likelihood, gives them their best chance yet at success with these workers. Employers in these sectors who want to remain union-free will have to be on their toes.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com or visit www.hrreporter.com for more information.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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