Tim Hortons vs. Workers in Winnipeg
by Doug Nesbitt
Less than a month ago, several workers at four Tim Hortons stores in Winnipeg began talking union. Management quickly learned of the union activities and, following a captive audience meeting, fired one of the women workers in touch with organizers from Workers United. The union responded by launching an online petition campaign and within days, forced Tim Hortons to reinstate the fired worker.
In announcing the victory, Workers United released the transcript of the captive audience meeting, recorded by one of the workers. The transcript reveals blatant intimidation and illegal threats by the franchise owner directed at the workers, before ultimately firing the one worker. It is a case study for labour activists in how employers try to break workers’ power, and some of the major obstacles facing workers and organizers in the service sector.
“So we just go to talking about what its like to work there and she described a pretty horrible atmosphere.”
“This all started about a month ago,” explains organizer Matt Gailitis.
“We were doing an educational with our union members here in Winnipeg and it turned out one of our members to work for Tim Hortons. So we just go to talking about what its like to work there and she described a pretty horrible atmosphere.”
There was success at the initial outreach with Tims workers. Very low wages after long years of work, unexplained cuts to work hours, and management behaviour were among the grievances expressed to organizers. However, management quickly found out what was going on and immediately called a captive audience meeting led by a manager and the franchise owner, Kamta Roy Singh.
Singh rattled off a series of threats against workers while repeatedly stating that he had been instructed by Tim Hortons head office to hold the meeting.
First he stated the store would be closed if it was unionized, and even falsely said that a Sept-Îles, Quebec Tim Hortons store had been closed down to get rid of the union. Incentives, such as $25 cash bonuses for low average service times, would be taken away. Paid breaks and meal discounts would be removed. Vacation pay and anniversary bonuses would be eliminated, uniforms would have to be paid for, and workers would begin to be charged for medical benefits. “So, you don’t need the union, they’re just a bunch of money grabbers.”
After the meeting, one Filipina worker was pulled aside by the general manager Joseph Marrast and fired for talking about unionizing.
By “creating a culture of fear in the workplace,” Matt explains that management was able to drive a wedge between union organizers and the remaining workers. “They basically poisoned the well,” explains Matt. “It became impossible for us to speak to workers. They would claim either to not be able to speak english, or say that Tim Hortons is the best employer ever, and the greatest job they ever had.”
Workers United communications officer Navjeet Sidhu confirms this. “We lost a lot of worker support. Basically, everybody was afraid to talk to us. The worker herself who was fired, she was really really scared about what the owners would do and she didn’t want to speak to the media as well.”
But the union responded quickly. Workers United lawyers immediately filed an unfair labour practice and a labour board hearing was scheduled for March 16th. Organizers tapped their media contacts and called up labour and student movement allies, including the Manitoba Federation of Labour, Winnipeg Labour Council, and the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association. The union also launched a public online petition.
“When she saw the amount of support she was getting outside of the union, it went a long way to help her get back on her feet.”
The solidarity had a profound effect on the fired worker. “When she first got fired, she was just inconsolable,” says Matt. “She felt like she was alone. There was nothing we could say to console her or to build her up. It took community here in Winnipeg – various labour organizations, student organizations. When she saw the amount of support she was getting outside of the union, it went a long way to help her get back on her feet.” Moved by the worker’s personal story, the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association gave her a donation in support.
The campaign won back her job. The petition gathered over 600 signatures in a few days and, as Navjeet explains, “I think from all that, Tim Hortons realized they didn’t have anything to stand on. We found out on Friday [March 13] that they were negotiating terms to reinstate the fired worker.”
It ain’t over
The battle is not over but the organizers now have an almost unprecedented opportunity in a non-union workplace: an upcoming store meeting with Tim Hortons workers – agreed to by management.
“You can see it in the transcript when they’re blatantly telling workers things that are against the law…it really reinforces that culture of fear within the workplace.”
“Our goal is to educate people and let them know that they have power with a union.” But Matt is also cautious about what is possible. “It’s going to be very difficult for us to get people back on our side. We can be sure that every day leading up to this meeting they’re going to be showering their employees with all kinds of praise about what a great job they’re doing.”
Fear is also widespread. The events of the last few weeks, says Navjeet, “really demonstrates the vulnerability in service sector work and especially in the context of many of these workers are newcomers, many of these workers are women, workers of colour, and they may not be necessarily fully aware of their rights under the law, and management totally exploit that. You can see it in the transcript when they’re blatantly telling workers things that are against the law…it really reinforces that culture of fear within the workplace.”
“Just walk into any Tim Hortons here in Winnipeg and its predominantly Filipino,” observes Matt. “The front staff are predominantly women. The only men that work there are in the back doing the baking.” Language, culture, and gender are all realities that organizers and worker-activists must address honestly in organizing. They are also things that managers and owners exploit.
How serious is the Tim Hortons union-busting strategy? With all of Singh’s references to Tim Hortons head office instructing him to conduct the captive audience meeting, Navjeet and Matt don’t believe that this is just a case of an out-of-control franchisee owner. Both are keenly aware of the management campaign of harassment at Tim Hortons stores in Sept-Iles Quebec, recently unionized by the Steelworkers.
“They really have no appetite for seeing workers rights being rolled over like that”
“If they were actually getting instructions from head office, that wouldn’t surprise me…it’s really disturbing to see Tim Hortons on such an aggressive union-busting campaign and how they can essentially, when these stories come up, absolve themselves by saying ‘well, you know, those stores are independent franchise owners, so we really don’t have much say in terms of what they do or what they pay their workers.’ We can’t possibly know what all stores are doing’.”
Navjeet is also quite happy that people “really have no appetite for seeing workers rights being rolled over like that” despite Tim Hortons reputation as a Canadian cultural brand.
“It was very very reassuring,” says Matt of the solidarity. “It was fantastic.”
Tim Hortons, with nearly 100,000 employees, remains largely non-union. The struggle continues.
In June 2015, the 35 workers at the Portage Avenue Tim Horton’s voted to unionize in a process supervised by the Manitoba Labour Relations Board, becoming the first Tim Horton’s to do so in the province.