Two workers detail management’s dirty tricks during a union drive
Editor’s note: We have kept the authors’ names anonymous
Steamworks is a chain of five bathhouses across Canada and the USA, catering primarily to gay men. The Toronto location opened eighteen years ago in the heart of the gay village, taking over a space previously occupied by another bathhouse, the Spa on Maitland.
Owned by Rick Stokes, a onetime political rival of Harvey Milk in San Francisco, Steamworks employs just over twenty workers in a few different job categories. Housekeepers clean private rooms and the club’s common areas; clerks check customers in and out of the club and handle the steady stream of laundry; a couple of maintenance assistants round out the workforce, keeping the hot tub and other facilities in good shape. All of us work hard as a team to make Steamworks a fun, safe and sexy environment 24/7.
“We had to organize”
By fall 2021 our general manager had created a lot of resentment. He’d torn our capacity limit notice off the wall a couple months after being hired, and was paying a friend for shifts he hadn’t actually worked. But the problems we face at Steamworks weren’t limited to one bad manager.
We’ve endured a lot of stuff that will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in service/hospitality: customer aggression, harassment from managers, arbitrary performance reviews, capricious discipline, WSIB claims suppression, inconsistent scheduling, wage theft, inadequate supplies of PPE.
To boost profits, Steamworks management will compromise customers’ safety as well as our own: during Pride they usually pressure us to ignore the occupancy limit, and it’s been years since we had someone certified in first aid/CPR in the building at any given time.
Appealing to different managers to deal with these issues over the years hadn’t been effective — by and large we love working at Steamworks, but to make it better we had to organize.
On the weekend of Halloween 2021 our GM yelled at the night shift clerks, threatening to fire them if they didn’t ignore public health measures by exceeding our 25% capacity limit. That would be the last time any of us were threatened over respecting our maximum occupancy. The following Tuesday we filed our application with the Ontario Labour Relations Board.
Management’s immediate reaction was equally confused and entertaining. Our GM called the staff organizer to say there must have been a mistake because Steamworks didn’t have a union; that he simply wouldn’t let us unionize; that we couldn’t join the United Food and Commercial Workers because we don’t handle food (Arguably we just work in a different kind of meat packing!).
Later that day the GM reached out to our local MPP, Suze Morrison, for advice. Suze’s staff replied by sharing a CFIB fact sheet on the legal limits employers have to respect during a union campaign that our managers proceeded to violate on just about every point. They knew better, they just figured they could get away with it.
Here’s some of what management did to us over the next week and a half:
- Threatening to withhold the night shift’s tips.
- Promising some workers that we would all receive $3-$7 hourly wage increases if we voted no; threatening others that we’d all be downgraded to minimum wage if we voted yes.
- Claiming union dues would claim up to half of our paychecks.
- Telling a suspected union supporter they couldn’t use the on-site gym, in an aggressive tone that shocked a regular customer who witnessed it.
- Accusing one employee of escorting: “if the union comes in, you’ll have to give up your other job.” While this person isn’t actually a sex worker, they were pretty disgusted that a sex club’s managers would try to use the stigma attached to sex work as leverage.
- Implying that a worker’s request to book time off would only be granted if they convinced coworkers on their shift to vote no.
- Telling workers that “Steamworks doesn’t negotiate” and we’d all be laid off.
- Telling regular customers that the business was going to close if we voted yes — or that the company would even shut down right away to stop us from voting.
- Pulling individual workers aside to say they sympathized with our concerns but “it’s just not a good time” for us to join a union.
- Telling other workers that unions were great in some industries but a bad fit for a small workplace like ours, where managers make sure “you don’t get lost.”
- Sending the drag queens who initially agreed to perform at our union rally messages that one described as hate mail, intimidating them both into backing out.
- Harassing workers who lingered at the rally.
- Refusing to apply the company’s existing harassment policies when union supporters were being bullied by coworkers the bosses had frightened.
- Cracking down hard on workers the GM had wronged in the past, assuming our organizing was driven by personal grievances instead of systemic issues.
- Hand-delivering a letter claiming to outline how the company had gone above and beyond the minimum (but not addressing any of the main concerns that motivated the union campaign).
- Withholding prize money from a Halloween costume contest that had just been won by someone they suspected was a union supporter, then giving the cash to another worker in exchange for his vote.
- Cutting suspected union supporters’ hours.
- Tearing down and spray painting over the “Our Community Supports Steamworkers” posters we had put up in the village.
- Attacking Suze Morrison when she publicly supported us, telling other business owners that she was plotting to unionize every workplace in the gay village. (If only!)
- Threatening that a mean, straight grocery store manager was already being trained in Chicago to replace the GM and would make our lives miserable if we voted yes.
- Creating a new schedule the morning before voting closed to punish suspected union supporters by making shifts incompatible with their college classes.
How we stuck together
We’d expected to face an aggressive anti-union campaign, but this went way beyond what any of us had anticipated. Here’s how we kept support intact in the face of management’s fear tactics:
- We had supporters on all shifts keeping us updated on what management was doing.
- We played dumb — when approached by management union supporters denied knowing anything about the campaign, or about unions in general.
- Having a queer union staff organizer back up our campaign made any attempts to portray the “straight” union as an opponent of our queer space fall flat.
- Rather than dissecting management’s every claim, we responded by pointing out the inconsistencies — on the one hand they’re going to shut down, on the other they’ve hired a mean new manager? Clearly they’re throwing everything they can at us to see what sticks.
- We made fun of management’s histrionics, using “what’s the craziest thing you’ve heard this week?” as an icebreaker in our union meetings before voting opened.
- We held a rally outside Steamworks at shift change the Friday after filing our application including drag queens, well-known local queer activists, regular customers, and Suze, to show we had support from the community.
- We rejected the company lawyers’ suggestion of co-signing a joint statement to “cool tensions.” All of the tension was coming from management, and we weren’t going to give them any excuse to pin it on us.
- We ignored their letter: since it didn’t address any of the priorities that had surfaced in one-on-ones with our coworkers, we gauged that it was going to fall flat and wasn’t worth engaging.
- Right before voting we sent workers supportive videos from other recently organized workers in the local (Indigo, Loblaws, United Weed Workers) and well-known gay activist Tim McCaskell, underlining that unionizing makes a real difference — both for workers’ own lives and for the communities we belong to.
- Our basic message to coworkers who were still on the fence right before the vote: don’t let these assholes get away with all of this bullshit!
What we learned
After 11 days of unrelenting pressure, the afternoon of Friday 12 November we finally learned that we’d won the vote 12-7. Here are some key lessons we think will be useful for other workers who might have to stand up to similarly unhinged union-busting tactics:
- A genuinely worker-led organizing campaign where workers do all the one-on-ones, get cards signed, and make the key decisions, will make it harder for management to portray the union as a third party.
- Reach out to several unions before signing cards so that when detailed questions come up, you can explain why this one in particular is a good fit. For example, management said UFCW was only focused on Loblaws and wouldn’t pay attention to a small shop like Steamworks; we were able to share that part of why we moved forward with local 1006A is that they include smaller workplaces, and we could even put them in touch with members from similarly sized shops.
- Get to know your coworkers and what matters to them better than management does. Stay focused on your shared goals and don’t get lost in the weeds rebutting the company point by point.
- If your bosses go off the deep end, let them dig their own grave. Laugh it off as much as possible.
- Document everything management does and says. Speak with every coworker who reports an incident — this helps you build up a record and, just as importantly, gives you an opportunity to check on how they’re feeling and what support they need.
- When fear tactics get people riled up, direct outrage back at the bosses. It’s not your coworkers’ fault if they’re afraid and lashing out. Keep the blame on management for scaring them in the first place.
Our GM was terminated roughly a month after we won, and the remaining managers keep promising that we’ve entered a new chapter with a new team. They have a chance to prove that as we start bargaining this week.
We know that we deserve better, and we won’t be afraid to demand it.