Over the past summer, Montreal had heatwaves. Temperatures approaching 40 degrees with humidity prompted the city to issue warnings—stay hydrated, don’t spend too much time outside.
Mohamed Ahmed was working during one of them, as a driver for Aux Vivres Cuisine. His job was to bring the company’s well-known vegan food to retailers across the city.
During the heatwave, Ahmed says, the trucks that he drove weren’t cold enough to keep the food. Grocery stores were turning it away. Ahmed and others informed supervisors that the refrigeration in the trucks was failing due to the heat, and that they needed better equipment. Management told them that failing refrigeration was because the van doors were left open for too long on deliveries.
It was, Ahmed says, one example among many of Aux Vivres Cuisine’s workers taking the blame for problems they didn’t cause. By the beginning of Fall, the majority of workers in the kitchen and distribution center had signed union cards with the Confederation des Syndicats Nationaux (CSN) one of Quebec’s large union federations.
Unionizing the restaurant industry
Aux Vivres is one of the older vegan restaurants in Montreal—the first location opened its doors in 1997, well before vegan food became trendy. Today, Michael and Liam Makhan, the brothers who own the company, also have a second restaurant on the other side of downtown, a tempeh production facility called The Noble Bean, and Aux Vivres Cuisine—a kitchen and distribution centre for the products that wind up in grocery stores, hospitals, and universities across the city.
Like many vegan companies, Aux Vivres and its affiliates’ brand is based on ethics. The “about us” section of their website uses headlines like “sustainability” and “democratizing healthy food.” The Noble Bean, located near the distribution center, is an “urban garden,” and the company’s food waste is turned into compost for community gardens across the city.
But the company has also been cultivating another, contradictory reputation over the years. In the notoriously low union-density restaurant sector, Aux Vivres has had unionization campaigns happen repeatedly over the past five years, triggered by what Joseph Arrotti, a warehouse worker at Aux Vivres Cuisine, calls a “disconnect between management and workers” in the workplace.
The first was the original restaurant, where a 2014 accident led to a worker losing a hand in a pita-maker. Workplace agitation culminated in a successful union drive for the restaurant workers in 2016.
The Noble Bean unionized as well during 2016. That union drive met a different fate. Workers were pushed out of their jobs and replaced with family members of managers, who voted to decertify the union one year after its formation. When approached by Rank and File, multiple former Noble Bean workers declined to comment, citing the conditions of a legal settlement with the company.
Aux Vivres Cuisine also saw a unionization campaign at the time, which Arrotti and Ahmed describe as having ended when union organizers lost their jobs.
Unionizing Aux Vivres
When Arrotti first met the CSN in late summer 2019, they advised him to move slowly, take his co-workers out for coffee, talk to them one on one, and get a feel for how much they would support a union drive.
However, with disrespect from management and general disorganization leading to constant turnover as workers left in search of better conditions elsewhere, Arrotti decided he needed to sign people up fast.
Ahmed, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, had already been informally organizing with his driver colleagues, asking for things like lower weight-loads. The delivery section is comparatively small next to the larger kitchen and warehouse, and workers in the two divisions don’t interact with one another much.
Initially, Arrotti didn’t think that the drivers would be a part of the union, because of the disconnect between the two divisions. But the organizing that Ahmed had been doing meant that when the drivers were approached, there was some organizing infrastructure already in place, and it was easy to plug in.
Together, the different divisions decided to join the CSN’s Syndicat de la Restauration, or Restaurant Union. David Bergeron-Cyr, a CSN organizer, says that the confederation decided to create a single local for restaurant unions across the province, because restaurants tend to have small staff, so that different restaurants can share administrative fees. It now includes a variety of restaurants across the province, including the non-fast food shops at Montreal’s Bell Centre.
Why does the CSN want to organize restaurants, an industry that has seemed to be union-proof? “Working conditions are shit, that’s the first reason,” Belanger-Cyr says. “But we also believe that the best way to build power for the workers is to have higher union density. To do this, we have to focus on workers who are not yet organized—and this, we find in the restaurant industry.”
“When the lawyer informed them that the union had been formed, the owners just didn’t believe it,” Arrotti says. The owners believed that the unions were an external force, that periodically came knocking, he says, and management seemed unable to grasp that the initiative had come from a broad consensus among the workers themselves.
Managers began to lash out, Arrotti says. Multiple workers were fired. They floated the idea of abolishing whole divisions of the business to be replaced with subcontractors. An idea which came to a halt with the arrival of a warning letter from a CSN lawyer.
One of those fired workers was Mike Long, one of the few people in the company who had been working there for an extended period of time. He had been working at the company for four years, three of which were in the role of supervisor. When he made a complaint to a manager, shortly after the union was announced, he was fired. The last time he had received a write-up, he says, was nearly a year prior.
“They fired 11 workers in the 12 days prior” to Long being fired, he says. At least one of them was another longer-term worker with a reputation for voicing complaints. Long is now being represented by the CSN’s lawyers in a case before the labour tribunal, where he is trying to receive a settlement for unjust firing.
“I don’t have the energy to be around these people anymore,” Long says, explaining why he is not trying to get his job back.
Ahmed says that he saw an uptick in write-ups happening. “I think they just wanted to get everyone on the firing line,” he says. Arrotti describes managers getting in workers faces and insulting their taste in music, in an attempt to provoke reactions.
On Nov. 1, the union and the company agreed on which employees would be represented by the union, following a dispute in which the company attempted to exclude supervisors, who don’t have the power to hire or fire, by reclassifying them as assistant managers. While some new assistant manager positions were created, the supervisors who remained on staff would be represented by the union.
The union was formally recognized by management on Nov. 11. The workers are now entering into the negotiation period for a collective agreement.
In the end of November the union will again be bringing the company before the province’s labour tribunal, this time over its firings of workers like Mike Long. “Organizing in the restaurant industry, it’s not a walk in the park,” Belanger-Cyr says. “Most of the time, it’s like that.”
During this process, one manager went to a bar with workers, including Arrotti, after the end of a shift. While sitting with his subordinates, he described how trains without conductors are bound to crash. In the time since, workers on the shop floor have started making train noises to one another.