By Kevin Taghabon, Samantha Connolly, Bradley Hughes, Tom Leonard
On Friday, January 19 the Fight For $15 and Fairness and labour movement allies launched actions at 50 Tim Hortons locations from Vancouver to Halifax. The actions are part of a continued pushback against Tim Hortons bosses who have come out of the gate openly abusing workers over Ontario’s new minimum wage and labour laws. The focus of the messaging at the actions was positive and supportive, with ire aimed at employers alongside a full embrace of Tim Hortons workers. Those supporting Tims workers are opposed to the theft of paid breaks, health benefits and intimidation that has been rampant across franchise since Ontario raised the minimum wage to $14/hour on January 1.
We love Tim Hortons workers
“Roll up the Min to Win” and “Honk if You [Love] Tim Hortons Workers” were among the signs at actions at multiple locations along Bloor Street in Toronto. “Double Double, Here For Trouble!” rang out at rallies across the country. Coordinated demonstrations were met with broad support from pedestrians, customers, and drivers alike.
In Vancouver, activists handed out over a hundred leaflets, reaching every single Tim’s customer during the morning rush at the Langara College location. Students and staff reacted with enthusiasm and support, and promised to contact Tim Hortons to demand an end to its campaign to undermine minimum wage increases.
More than 60 people rallied outside the Tim Hortons in Ottawa, leafletting passing motorists and talking with Tim Hortons customers—as well as hearing from speakers including Marie Clarke Walker, Secretary-Treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress and Sean McKenny, President of the Ottawa & District Labour Council. It was difficult to hear the speeches at times over the noise of passing motorists honking their horns in support. This rally was larger than the rally held outside a downtown Tim Hortons on Sparks Street the previous week – a great sign of increasing momentum.
Over a hundred people gathered at Kingston’s flagship Tim Hortons to show their support for workers. Local unions members, students, and community members came out to protest the treatment of Tim Horton’s employees by their boss: cutting hours, taking away paid breaks, reducing benefits and eliminating free uniforms. Passers by showed their support and cars were honking all down the street.
The evening before the Canada-wide day of action, the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters’ Association, representing over 3000 Toronto Fire Services employees, tweeted out support for the movement. “A rising tide lifts all boats…We support the struggle of all precarious and vulnerable workers. Heads up: Canada-Wide Day of Action in Support of Tim Hortons workers [tomorrow]”. At the Dufferin and Bloor Tim Hortons location, firefighters in a large truck gave support to the crowd with thunderous honks and fist pumps.
Climate justice and health
In the Bloor West Village of Toronto, about a dozen energetic campaigners had an extra dimension to their rally. Representatives from Toronto 350, a grassroots climate justice organization, joined the rally to lend support. As one of them told the group, “Minimum wage jobs tend to be low carbon or no carbon jobs, the kind we’ll need more of. The battle for climate justice cannot be won without winning economic justice, and so we are happy to support the Fight for $15 and Fairness.” At one Tims location the workers were kind enough to bring an enormous box of coffee and cups outside for the activists supporting them.
At the Tim Hortons on University/College near Toronto’s string of downtown hospitals, health workers rallied in support of workers. They exposed the cuts to health and dental benefits, and the wage clawbacks as not only unjust but also unhealthy: “Tim Hortons share the wealth, decent work is good for health.”
One customer who came to Tim Hortons and was supportive of the movement behind them stressed the need for unions in the workplace. “Please get unions. [It’s] the only way to have a fair share of your income. Don’t give up. Get the union.” Indeed, unions in retail and food service have proven to be an effective counterbalance against employers’ desires to carve as much profit out of every employee as possible.
At many university campuses across the country – including at York University where food service workers are members of UNITE HERE 75 – unionized Tim Hortons employees have not had to deal with the clawbacks that non-unionized employees are facing. $15 and Fairness activists had an action on York’s campus, and students were happy to know that this Tims is one of the locations protected from employer abuse due to union presence.
Many see the inspiring struggle of food service workers at York as the straw that broke the camel’s back for last year’s $15 and Fairness push in Ontario. Tim Hortons’ franchise structure is set up to make it systematically difficult for employees to unionize, but the barriers are by no means insurmountable. Additionally, it is illegal for employers to harass or intimidate workers for trying to unionize.
Tim Hortons, like most franchises, is very secretive about their internal finances. They have tried (and largely failed) to advance the narrative that they are the true victims in this struggle. Few things could be further from the truth.
Firstly, on Tim Hortons’ own corporate Frequently Asked Questions page, they confirm that one needs $1.5 million in net worth and $500,000 of liquid assets in order to open a Tim Hortons location. Additionally, the average franchise location makes $265,000 a year after expenses and labour have been paid (as of 2011, most recent numbers publicly available). Their attempt to frame themselves as victims begs two questions: did you lose nearly two million dollars running this business, and how incompetent a millionaire entrepreneur are you if a $2.60/hour increase is catastrophic?
The poster-children for Tims’ assault on their own employees are none other than Tim Hortons heirs Jeri-Lynn Horton-Joyce and Ron Joyce Jr. The Joyces, who own the Cobourg, Ontario Tim Hortons location that spearheaded the anti-minimum wage initiatives, have a father whose net worth is estimated at $1.4 billion. In 2013, the Joyces’ family yacht was sold for $19.9 million – a yacht which was used to host lavish parties with celebrities like Selma Hayek.
Like most franchise coffee shops, food arrangements, colour schemes, uniforms, and napkins cannot be modified whatsoever without checking with corporate first. At Tim Hortons locations where management espoused support for the wage increase, $15 and Fairness activists were repeatedly told that management could not put any imagery in support of the movement in their windows without “checking with head office” first. Two independent provincial special advisers confirmed that in franchise-franchisee relationships virtually all aspects of the business are dictated from the corporate head office. The “rogue franchisees” line advanced by corporate and Restaurant Brands International (who own Tim Hortons) ignores how much control they exert, but it does hint at the growing rifts inside the company between franchise owners and RBI.
The anti-democratic values in every hierarchical system rarely express themselves as clearly as they have in this Tim Hortons episode. As former Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan has pointed out, Tim Hortons is, “a multinational corporation coming out and basically punishing the workers for a democratic decision that was made in our legislature – to raise the minimum wage to catch up after being screwed for so many years.”
In Whitby, franchise owners Susan & Jason Holman began their anti-wage increase temper tantrums even before the law was voted on. A memo they sent to their employees last November reads, “I encourage you to let [Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne] know how your workplace will change as a result of her new law and that you will not vote Liberal in the coming Ontario election in June 2018.” These franchise owners had the gall to attempt to subvert democracy by intimidating their workers into voting against their own interests.
Tims: gambling with their brand
It is important to remember that Tim Hortons is not the only antagonist in minimum wage and labour standards struggles. As comedian Rick Mercer has pointed out in his signature “Rick’s Rant”, Tim Hortons was foolish enough to overplay their position in Canadian culture and turn themselves into public villains after decades of PR linking the brand to Canada. They are not unique in any other way. The motivations behind Tims’ minimum wage backlash are the exact same incentives every employer has to cut corners and costs everywhere.
Tim Hortons’ unbelievably miscalculated handling of the wage increase would have drawn jealousy and inspiration from similar companies a month ago. They would love to do the same, but the growing movement defending the victories of the $15 and Fairness campaign has caused some to back away from previous plans.
The Rainbow Foods supermarket in Ottawa recently announced that it had reversed its decision to cut breaks in response to overwhelming public backlash. Canada’s largest Asian supermarket with seven locations in Toronto has also cancelled plans to take away workplace benefits. Surely, many more businesses are quietly tucking their tails between their legs in private. It is reasonable to conclude that without the united $15 and Fairness movement fighting back against Tim Hortons’ abuses, these and many other businesses would have steamrolled over their loyal workers for a few more dollars.
The unspoken treasure of Tim Hortons workers
Beyond shallow interpretations of Canadiana and chauvinistic appeals to national brands, there does lie an oft-overlooked value at Tim Hortons – namely, the people who work there. Tim Hortons employees hand people their coffee at rest stops on long, exhausting trips on the highway. They are there to brighten up and energize students during arduous study sessions on campuses across the country. They are there kickstarting groggy workday mornings for hundreds of thousands of people.
In short, Tim Hortons workers and their compatriots across the food service and retail sectors make life safer, more bearable, and more humane. Recognizing this reality allows us as working people to arm ourselves with a perspective that confirms that we are in this struggle together. History has shown time and again that the forces of capital will never bow meekly to the demands of working people. It is our duty to continue building upon the momentum of the moment. We cannot let a crisis go to waste. In fostering and maintaining organized networks of working people across the country we can win against those fighting to keep living standards low today, and be ready for the aspirational battles of tomorrow.
Tim Hortons has chosen to treat their employees as pawns. We have the power to make them heroes.
If your employer has been punishing employees at your workplace in response to the minimum wage increase, you can anonymously contact the Bad Boss Hotline here, or call 1-855-531-0778.
This article first appeared on socialist.ca