By Charlie Huntley
Workers at the Smiling Goat Café in Halifax have been slinging lattes for years, but for the past six weeks most of us have been struggling to get paid. After pleading, workers sometimes received $200 here or $200 there in owed wages, but none of us have been paid in full, some of us not even close.
We are extremely fed up. Working for close-to minimum wage few of us have any savings and the bills are piling up. Last week in order to grab our boss’ and customers’ attention, my coworker at one of the unionized Smiling Goats, in Halifax, made a chalkboard sign that read “Please tip your baristas generously. Tips are our main source of income as our paycheques are bouncing. Anything is appreciated.”
The sign circulated on social media and quickly grabbed the media’s attention. The Metro ran a story in which they interviewed our boss, who said, “These few staff are misleading the public who are being duped into giving extra tips on top of the wages they have received.”
Two years ago a two-store coffeeshop chain, The Smiling Goat changed ownership. Shortly after, The Coast, a Halifax newspaper, reported on this new Halifax business and its questionable employment practices, something the owner had a history of.
When a bad boss takes over
Since then, the new boss has expanded, opening 4 new cafes, two of which were a buy-out of Just Us! Coffee Roasters’ two city cafes, which took place in September 2017. These two cafes were already unionized and the new owner was bound by law to keep the union and unionized workers, and to follow the collective agreement. He signed off on a letter of intent with our union agreeing to be bound by the terms of that collective agreement.
For the first two months of the changeover of ownership Just Us! Coffee Roasters kept the two unionized cafes on payroll and their health benefits plan, giving the new boss plenty of time to set up direct deposit and purchase a benefit plan. But the owner failed to set up both, breaking the collective agreement. There are grievances about this going to arbitration soon, but not soon enough for the workers to pay their bills now.
After the change of ownership was complete the excuses began to pile up: We will get direct deposit set up by the end of November/ early December 2017, the payroll website says it’s going to take until the end of January 2018, then February 2018, the health benefit cards were in the mail, the broker went on vacation, they should come in the mail soon.
The owner continues to deduct long-term disability benefits off our paycheques, when we get them and the health insurance cards never arrived in the mail.
From November 2017 up until the present he has been writing us cheques for payday (or shortly thereafter – sometimes a day late), some of which were his personal cheques. And then our cheques started bouncing in December. For the most part, he would pay-up for the bounced cheques before next payday.
That was the case until early March rolled around. First he wrote us cheques that bounced, replaced them with new cheques, he left us cheques at work for our next payday and went on vacation. After he left, both the replacement cheques and the cheques for the following payday bounced.
We were pissed. This was the third time he used the “I switched banks” excuse and how convenient that he is out of the country and has an e-transfer limit of $3,000 per day and $10,000 per week so he cannot pay us all. On top of the bounced cheques, he made no arrangements at all to pay us via cheque or e-transfer, or cash on our latest pay day before returning from the country.
Taking the fight to the boss
Last Friday workers of the unionized and non-unionized Smiling Goat baristas held a press conference to demand the wages our boss owes us, that he stop breaking our collective agreement (i.e. by failing to issue ROEs, and failures to set up direct-deposit and a health benefits plan). These unionized baristas will not tolerate wage theft, but he has 4 other non-union shops where the workers are also facing violations of labour law, only without union support.
We know our best defence as workers is a good offence. That is why we also announced that there was a vote for non-union sites to band-together with us under one union and to fight our boss’ bad employer practices. Votes were held at the four other Smiling Goat Cafes last week. We are confident that the vote will rule in our favour, since all of the baristas we spoke with were fired up and wanted better working conditions and to get paid.
Our boss has been paying attention to the news, he saw the coverage of our press conference and he told us we would get all of our money to us this week. We do not accept empty promises, so we kept the pressure on by having a picket Tuesday morning. He caught wind of the picket, paid the perceived leaders almost all of what they are owed. However, we are still waiting on the money owed to our coworkers who were not in the media, so we are not going to let up the pressure now. We will keep organizing until everyone is paid and our other demands are met. The lesson for us is when you take the fight to your employer you can win.
Bad boss medicine: Unions
In our press release we outlined how unions can help fight bad boss practices: “Many people want to know why we don’t just quit our jobs. Our response to that is…Simply quitting allows him, and every other employer who commits wage theft or other illegal actions, to continue operating business as usual, and to take advantage of a new crop of unsuspecting employees.”
In my experience with organizing cafes, I’ve heard a lot of “That’s just the way things are” and “When you’re job sucks, just quit and get another one”. These folks missed the big picture. A) there are very few “good bosses” out here in the food service industry so if you stay in the industry, there is a very good chance that you are going to land in a job with similar working conditions or worse and B) that bad job you quit did not get any better when you left, it simply became a bad job for the next worker.
Wage theft is rampant in the service industry. Wages are already very low, very few have healthcare benefits, the majority of food service workers do not get breaks, many owners/managers can’t keep their paws off of our tips, and most of us fear discipline or dismissal if we speak up about something unjust at work. This is because employment standards are too weak and there are not enough union members in the private-sector service industry, especially if you work for a small business.
When my former coworkers and I organized our cafe a few years ago one of our main motivations was that we saw our women and queer coworkers being fired when they did not agree with our assistant manager. A union was key in putting that practice to an end. Union contracts always have a just-cause clause that requires your employer to have a solid reason for firing you and a progressive discipline policy, so that if a worker does break a small rule, they are proportionally disciplined and not just fired for small slip-ups or disagreements.
Another one of our motivations was that our manager was also taking a cut of the tips and using tips to cover till shortages, so we put in our contract that the workers had control over their tips, which is huge, because many provinces allow employers to take their employees’ tips. Not all reasons to form unions are based on negative working conditions. For instance we had healthcare benefits at the time and we wanted to keep them.
Don’t quit, organize!
If you want to hold on to the good parts of your job, unionize, and solidify it in your contract. One day, your boss might do what ours did; pack it in and sell you down the river to a worse employer.
If you want a better job for yourself, better jobs for your coworkers, the workers who come after you, and even just the workers in your community, the best way to do that is to band-together with your coworkers, unionize your workplace, and stay organized. It is the only fighting chance to keep what you want and to fight back against what sucks at your workplace.
I don’t know about you, but we, the workers of the Smiling Goat, are finished with wage-theft as usual. We are finished with bad bosses in the service industry. We encourage all service industry workers to unionize and fight back against the bullshit at work.
The even bigger picture is that it is possible to win big gains, like living wages, benefits, and pensions when we increase union membership in the private-service sector.
Let’s stop allowing bad bosses take advantage of newly hired workers! Let’s organize our workplaces and fight back! We owe it to each other.