Jeannie Baldwin

Just them (Updated)


There are times when a small strike looms larger than a big one. Without the distraction of side-issues, the core issues of principle take centre stage.

With a massive strike, the media can be counted upon to go on a tear about public inconvenience, for example. The major inconveniences that forced the workers out on strike fade into obscurity. As well, it’s all “union” versus “employer,” portrayed as two mighty forces locked in perpetual struggle.

With a strike involving only a handful of people, we get a clear glimpse of why unions came into being in the first place. That’s the case with the couple of dozen Porter Airlines fuel handlers, presently fighting for their health and safety and a few cents more per hour. They’ve been continually harassed by police and private security since they walked out at the beginning of this year. Their demands are modest.

Despite the barrage of anti-union propaganda that we all grow up with, people have a sense of fairness, and they got upset when Justin Trudeau flew on the struck airline. Enough noise was made on that occasion that Trudeau met with their representatives later on and pledged his support for the Porter boycott.

That’s the way things work without distractions, and it’s happening again at a Halifax coffee joint called the Just Us! Café on Spring Garden Road.

This is a co-op, trumpeting its support for fair trade coffee and social justice. But it’s not a co-op in the pure sense. There are two tiers of workers: 15 “worker members” and more than 50 other employees, who must put in two years and some cash to achieve “worker member” status, which means actually joining the co-op and making decisions.

Needless to say, difficulties will crop up in these circumstances. Whether it’s tips, breaks or other daily matters, there will inevitably be disagreements between what is in fact a small management group and those who are being managed. So a couple of employees thought it might be a good idea to form a union, and they started talking up the idea among their co-workers.

Elijah Williams and Shay Enxuga were those employees—and now they’re ex-employees. They were let go for not being a “good fit.” There is now a complaint before the Labour Board of Nova Scotia, lots of critical commentary on the coffee house Facebook site and there was a labour support rally outside the premises on April 6.

If you can take the time, this interview with the General Manager of the co-op is worth listening to. All the paternalistic clichés are there—why do we need a union? We’re transparent. We’re democratic. We’re trying to be even more democratic. Etc.

But no problem with unions in principle, the GM says. Yet lo and behold, a memo has just been posted at Just Us! that appears to declare war:

Neither unions or union organizers or union sympathizers are permitted to disrupt the business of the employer (Just Us!). Workers adopting positions adverse to the employer will be disciplined. Employees should not be wearing union T-shirts at the place of employment nor should they be talking to customers about their respective positions with regard to the two employees that are part of the Labour Relations Board complaint…. Workers most definitely should not be causing stress in the workplace by announcing their positions and opinions to other workers or to customers. The employer (Just Us!) has every right to require the disruptive workers to cease-and-desist their disruptive activity….

And two employee activists are already gone—which indicates, all by itself, why a union is needed at the Just Us! Café. I’ve already written a letter to the general manager, pointing out that the Atlantic Region of PSAC, representing 20,000 workers, has been purchasing Just Us! coffee for our four regional offices, and we’ve been promoting their fair trade coffee to the membership.

We aren’t going to do that any more—not until the rights of Just Us! employees to form a union are recognized.

Send a letter of your own ( to Debra Moore, General Manager, Just Us! Café, to stand up for those rights. By doing so you won’t just be supporting Just Us! employees: you’ll be encouraging countless other workers in low-paid service operations to stand up for theirs.

UPDATE: (May 7) It just keeps getting worse for Just Us! Cafe as these things inevitably do for employers who are both anti-worker and anti-union to the core. We now learn, through a May 6, 2013 complaint, that Just Us! has been violating basic labour standards. More employees are being heard from, and the end of this sorry little saga is not in doubt. When will the “progressive” managers of Just Us! Cafe wake up and, er, smell the coffee?

[Photo credit: Sabrina Fabian/CBC]

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This page contains a single entry by Jeannie Baldwin published on April 18, 2013 3:51 PM.

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