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Unionized coffee shops
grind out a future

Just Us! finds its perks while Second Cup gets the brew-t.


Barista Jude Kay pours a hot one. - RILEY SMITH
  • Barista Jude Kay pours a hot one.

Two years ago, baristas leading the push to unionize Halifax coffee shops was the grounds for many a heated discussion. In 2013, both Just Us! and Second Cup were at the centre of unionization battles fuelled by concerns about workplace conditions.

Employees at both coffee shops were ultimately successful in unionizing, but two years later and Second Cup’s Quinpool Road franchise is closed. Meanwhile, Just Us! says organized labour has only strengthened the workplace.

Both coffee shops initially experienced resistance from management when workers sought to unionize in 2013. While Just Us! came around, Second Cup did not. Franchise owner Kathy Attis reportedly displayed anti-union sentiment to her employees preceding a union vote. After unionizing, Attis fired three baristas. She would later tell the provincial labour board it was done to maintain order at the cafe.

A subsequent decision by the board released earlier this year states Attis treated the union “as if it did not exist, or worse.” Second Cup’s Quinpool location closed its doors earlier this month. The Chronicle-Herald reports the shop owes thousands in rent. Attempts to reach Attis for comment by phone and email were unsuccessful.

Things are working out a little better on Spring Garden Road. Just Us! was the first coffee shop in Nova Scotia to unionize, and Charlie Huntley was one of the baristas who led that drive. Those efforts came, in part, because job security in Halifax is a rarely found necessity.

“Many people don’t know that without a union your employer can fire you whenever they feel like it, but if you’re working a low-wage job, not finding a new job in two weeks is a big deal,” says Huntley. “If you’re visibly queer or trans, that unemployment period is likely to be much longer than straight and cis workers.”

Huntley says that after seeing so much precarious work in the industry, once they found a full-time job with benefits, “it didn’t make sense for me to get a new job. It made more sense to organize a union.”

Sam Krawec, from the Service Employees International Union Local 2, says unions formalize the relationship between the employee and the employer, but that process is often dreadfully misconceived.

“Many employers fear losing power and control over the work place and think if their business is unionized, it isn’t going to be tangible anymore, you’re not going to be able to continue running, but that’s not true,“ he says. “No one would join a union to specifically put themselves out of work. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Debra Moore, general manager of Just Us!, says the owners never opposed the union but were puzzled why baristas sought help outside of their worker co-op. She’s since come around.

“I understand it now,” she says. “In a cafe situation, a lot the staff don’t have a lot of work or life experience and it’s hard to stand up to an owner or a business and negotiate. That’s a scary thing.”

Moore now praises her experience dealing with the union, saying organizing gave both sides a voice, created a platform for the staff to discuss their concerns in a productive way and have led to a formulated method to deal with their issues.

“The fear that the union was going to ask so much that our business was going to go out of business was not found in our situation,” she says. “Everything they asked for in their collective agreement was extremely reasonable.”

Huntley agrees it’s helped stabilize the Just Us! work environment.

“We don’t have to fear for our jobs when we ask for the things we’re entitled to.”

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