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Coburg Coffee baristas apply to unionize

Workers want job security, fair treatment and a voice in the workplace

by Stephanie Taylor

 Coburg Coffee could become the third coffee shop in Halifax to unionize after Monday's vote. Photo by Stephanie Taylor
Coburg Coffee could become the third coffee shop in Halifax to unionize after Monday's vote. Photo by Stephanie Taylor

Graeme Stewart pours coffee for a living.  

“People who work in the food industry just get paid way too little to have a fullfilling life,” he said in an interview Saturday. “I don’t think people should necessarily have to move beyond  their position to have a fullfilling life that makes them happy.”

 Stewart, a Saint Mary's University graduate who began working at Coburg Coffee almost two-years ago, will vote “yes” to certify a union he's helped to organize on Monday's election.  

The vote will determine if Coburg Coffee becomes the next coffee shop in Halifax to unionize. Just Us! Coffee Roasters Cooperative on Spring Garden Road and Second Cup on Quinpool both unionized last year. 

Workers filed a union certification application with the provincial labour board last Tuesday after a two-week union drive and several months of discussion, Stewart said.

The campaign’s goals are three-fold: job security, fair treatment and equal voice in the workplace. 

Of Coburg's ten employees, he says six have already pledged their support. 

“Young workers are gaining consciousness about their rights as workers and the economic pressures they’re facing,” says Sebastien Labelle, a union organizer with Local 2 of the Service Employees International Union in Nova Scotia.  He is also involved with Baristas Rise Up— a campaign that supports coffee house employees across the province who want to unionize. 

Because young people make up the largest demographic of workers who are stuck at jobs making minimum wage with no security, he says it’s no surprise to see young workers push to unionize. 

The economic reality for young workers is made even worse by the fact many enter the job market with insurmountable amounts of student debt, Labelle adds.

“The next generation of workers has an (attitude) of being thrown under the economic bus." 

Although it's been nearly two-years, Stewart say he still makes minimum wage and has never once been offered a raise. 

“I’ve never even brought it up because in my head I had just submitted to the standards. I didn’t even feel like it was worth the effort,” he says. 

Kelly Irvine, the coffee house's owner and co-operator, recently told employees in an email after the union application was filed that their wages were competitive by industry standards, Stewart said. 

“Minimum wage cannot be competitive wages,” he explains. “If employees are getting paid minimum wage than it’s kind of like your boss is saying they would pay you less if they could, but they can’t so they’re paying you minimum wage.” 

Irvine declined to comment Saturday.  

With the upcoming vote, Stewart describes the past few days at work have been “awkward”, but he feels confident by the outpouring of community support. 

He believes the move to unionize is about more than pay raises and benefits. He hopes it will help spread the message to all food industry employees that they matter as individuals and their jobs are not disposable. 

“To be a part of something to improve the standards of workers everywhere is very gratifying," Stewart said. 

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Topics: Solidarity
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