“I want to unionize as many Starbucks as possible”

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Pablo Guerra, 57, has been a union organizer for about 15 years in various industries. Lately, he has turned to the world of fast food where he has been involved in a wave of organizing drives for Starbucks employees that are currently sweeping North America.

In the United States, more than 50 stores have unionized since last August and more than 230 have filed petitions for a union vote. More recently, a group of Starbucks in Lethbridge, Alberta started Canada’s own wave.

Last month, five Lethbridge stores announced they were seeking a union certification vote from the United Steelworkers Union (USW). They aim to join Canada’s only unionized Starbucks, located in Victoria, as the only successful attempts in Canada.

Guerra, a USW organizer, works with these stores to guide them through the process. He was instrumental in organizing the Victoria site and advised Calgary’s Chinook Center shopping mall, which ultimately failed to unionize. Guerra says he is amazed by the new generation of Canadian workers seeking to unionize and sees it as a legacy for him and his union.

In an interview with Maclean’sGuerra discussed the new wave of Starbucks unions, what Canadians don’t realize about low-wage work, and why Lethbridge has taken center stage in the fight for unions for Starbucks workers. .

Has the pandemic — and shifting views in the workplace — had an effect on the union push at places like Starbucks?

I’ve been doing this for about 20 years and I’ve never seen such interest in unionizing, especially in Alberta.

Usually in Alberta our union organizes about two to three hundred workers a year. In the past 365 days, we had a call center in Calgary where over 200 workers unionized. In Grande Cache, 130 people from the Foothills Forest Products sawmill have joined a union. At Wellington Retirement Residence in Medicine Hat, 80 people joined, and now there’s Starbucks — you can see the trend.

Why do you think there is a union push in a small town like Lethbridge? And what are some of the issues employees face there?

After the pandemic, I think rural Canada realized, especially in Alberta, that workers don’t have enough rights. Government labor standards are minimum protections, as are minimum wages and minimum holidays.

Rural Starbucks workers started talking with baristas from other locations and realized they had the same issues and needs. They realized that their employers were making millions of dollars and not paying enough. Companies like Starbucks talk about not needing third parties and that the door is always open to talk. Since when? There wasn’t enough personal protective equipment during the pandemic, and when workers called and said they were sick, they were faced with the loss of future shifts.

Now, especially in Lethbridge, you’ll find very committed workers who understand that the union isn’t perfect, but it’s the only thing that’s going to give them those protections.

What have you learned from your experience organizing fast food workers at the Victoria Starbucks location?

About two years ago I got a call from a Victoria Starbucks about unionization. The auto workers union had tried in the past but had not succeeded. (In 2007, Vancouver-area Starbucks workers left that union, having gained little leverage in negotiations with headquarters.) of this experience. But we were so constrained by the history of worker mistreatment that I thought the workers needed to be represented.

This success sparked the Starbucks labor movement. It showed that we could do it. It became like wildfire in the United States. In Canada, we have been a little more conservative, watching the reaction of Starbucks, an anti-union company. Now we are making a big push, starting with five cafes in Lethbridge.

You have successfully organized the Victoria Starbucks located at Douglas and Alpha streets. What is different for the workers there now?

What the union has done for the workers there is to give them structure. They have the power to negotiate. They are entitled to additional health and safety measures. They used to have a lot of customers harassing employees, but now they have regulations to protect workers from that. Shifts were usually distributed to workers by the manager, but now there is seniority.

Let’s say that in a quarter, a worker loses hours. In the next, they could be kicked out of Medicare. Who controls the giving of these hours? The director. Now all employees get benefits after passing the probationary period, so you don’t have to work a minimum number of hours to retain them. At the bargaining table, Starbucks said it was out of money, but within months of signing the contract, it gave everyone but the unionized store raises. It was beyond the money they earned. Why does Starbucks now have the money to give a raise? It’s because they want to break the union.

In March, an attempt to organize at Starbucks in Calgary’s Chinook Center mall failed. Why do you think the Lethbridge attempts will succeed?

In Calgary, our primary contact left and the person who took over their role was offered a management position by Starbucks.

In Lethbridge, the workers did all their homework and got very involved in the campaign. They didn’t just sign up, they took ownership of the campaign. More and more, corporate power over workers is fading, no matter what they try to do.

Do you think there will be a greater push for unionization by customer service workers?

I think this will be a new area for the union. I call them the forgotten workers. The big unions in our society almost never see minimum wage exploitation happening in these industries.

I think every worker has the right to be represented and I think there will be changes in the future. For example, what about the workers in the malls of big companies like Telus, where some parts of the company are unionized and some are not? There are immigrants and foreign workers in mall food courts earning minimum wage. These companies are making millions and they can do that because they have these people working there. Many Canadians do not even realize what is happening.

Canadian society does not realize that there are two categories of workers. Basically, one has rights and the other does not. For example, a temporary foreign worker from Mexico might earn $16 an hour, earning in one month in Canada what he earns in two months at home. If he doesn’t get paid sick leave or paid overtime for working long hours, or if he earns less than he would if he were a Canadian citizen, it doesn’t matter to him because he always earns more money. But that shouldn’t suit anyone.

Meanwhile, other workers in Canada are fighting for all the rights we have, but the government doesn’t always regulate them equally. And employers take advantage of it where they can.

The wave of Starbucks unions in the United States is unprecedented. What do you hope to see within a year in Canada?

I want as many Starbucks as possible. I want Canada to be a model of the vulnerability of big business to organize, not only to help create a massive movement, but because when you have a strong union, companies often decide to raise wages to deter employees to unionize. We are raising the standard of living of workers through unions. If we get more companies in the fast food industry like Starbucks, there will be more unionized workers and workers will get more money in all areas. I think it’s a win-win.

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