by Emily Leedham
Wearing bright orange touques and signs saying “Locked Out!”, Winnipeg Tim Horton’s workers chant “No more Tim’s!” in the underground Portage & Main Pedestrian Loop. It’s lunchtime and these members of Workers United Canada Council Local 268 are telling their regular customers not to go to Tim Horton’s until their employer agrees to put 10 more cents on the bargaining table.
“Good luck to you folks,” a woman says as she passes by. A man stops to ask if he can buy the locked out workers coffee – from Marcello’s or Starbucks, not Tim’s. Around the corner, the usually packed Tim Horton’s line is sparse, and at times empty.
“We’ve been planning for awhile for this collective agreement, about six months worth of planning and getting our proposals ready,” says Andy Spence, organizer for Workers United.
Manitoba’s minimum wage went up from $11.35 to $11.65 on October 1, 2019. Prior to the increase, the Tim’s workers were making $11.75, or 40 cents above minimum wage. After the increase, franchise owner JP Shearer put a 20 cent raise on the table to $11.95, meaning the workers would now only make 30 cents above minimum wage. The workers countered with a 35 cent raise to $12.10, while making it clear they would go no lower than 30, maintaining an hourly rate 40 cents above the minimum wage.
But Shearer refused to budge on the extra 10 cents. His other unionized shop on Graham Ave had accepted the 20 cents, so he didn’t see why these workers wouldn’t accept the same deal.
“Look, the only way to get them to move on that is to give them a strike mandate,” Spence recalls telling the workers. “There was a good meeting about it, the majority of employees voted 95% to get a strike mandate for us to go back to the table.”
On December 18, 2019, the union gave notice to commence strike action January 2, 2020. The day after, the employer responded with a lockout notice, which would begin January 3, 2020. The union then asked employees not to take strike action on January 2, but show up for their regular shifts. On January 3, the workers returned, but were sent away and replaced with other workers.
Workers began picketing that same day outside the Richardson building, which sits at the busy intersection of Portage & Main, and in the underground walkway.
Shearer exploits immigrants’ Permanent Residency status to deter job action
Complicating the fight is that some workers do not have Permanent Residency, which has resulted in what the union has been told are subtle reminders from the employer that “they must attend work” if they hope to acquire PR status. This has caused several workers to cross the picket line for fear of losing their jobs. In a statement, Workers United recognizes these immigrant workers are “between a rock and a hard place.”
JP Shearer owns six other Tim Horton’s locations, including another that is also unionized with Workers United. The workers at that location accepted the lower wage increase because the union says many more do not have Permanent Residency status.
“How many other locations is he using the same tactic, the PR?” asks Vasantha Gunaratna, Vice President for WUCC. “This is a classic case of how workers are being exploited and pitting one against the other, right?”
Gunaratna says the root issue lies with federal immigration policies, which allows employers to exploit cheap labour and dangle the promise of Permanent Residency in front of workers, so long as they don’t step out of line.
Ambiguity in these policies is also a way for employers to exploit workers. Gunaratna explains that if an immigrant worker’s employment status is “interrupted,” the worker must start from square one. According to him, it’s the “magic word” that employers can use to deter workers from taking job action, like walking a picket line.
But he says this “interruption” interpretation doesn’t square with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which grants workers the right to join a union.
“So if you’re free to join a union, you should be free to cross a picket line or not cross a picket line, that’s your choice too.”
Given the power dynamics, however, Gunaratna understands why workers without PR status would be fearful to take that risk.
Who’s Responsible – The Franchise or the Brand?
With various franchisees across Canada managing separate stores, how responsible is Tim Horton’s as a parent company for this specific dispute?
Gunaratna says both JP Shearer and Tim Horton’s are responsible. According to the franchise agreement, he explains, if Tim Horton’s name is brought into a conversation, the Tim Horton’s brand should step up.
“So, if they put that in the franchise agreement, that means they are also bound by the same laws, they just don’t want to take the heat.”
He adds, “While the franchisee is the one that’s at the table, the brand certainly has the power to call up the franchisee and say “Hey, treat your people well.”
Tim Horton’s workers call for public support
The workers are handing out flyers with contact information for both the owner and general manager, asking customers to demand the workers get a fair deal:
Audrey Grehan – General manager
This week, Workers United plans to secondary picket the other six Tim Horton’s locations owned by JP Shearer:
1 Lombard Ave (Lockout, Unionized Location)
240 Graham Street (Unionized Location)
333 St. Mary’s Ave – City Place
306 Donald – Alt Hotel
396 Portage Ave – Portage Place Shopping Centre
434 Portage and Vaughn Street
1485 Portage Ave – Polo Park Shopping Centre
On January 7, Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew also visited the picket line and said he would send the list of locations to the rest of his caucus and inform them not to patronize JP Shearer’s stores. Many unions have also visited in solidarity. The Manitoba Federation of Labour is organizing a solidarity event at the picket line Friday, January 10 at 12 PM.
“We’re strong and we will fight to the end, right?” Gunaratna says, “There’s no other way to do this, we have to beat this employer because he’s just abusing these workers.”
Jan 9, 2018: This article was edited to clarify statements from the union regarding the bargaining timeline and legal rights of workers without Permanent Residency.