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Just Us and Them?

Baristas at Just Us! Café attempt to unionize, lose their jobs

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

Just Us! General Manager says she knows nothing of the union drive.
Just Us! General Manager says she knows nothing of the union drive.

Elijah Williams was caught off guard last week when he and fellow Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op employee Shay Enxuga were told they were no longer a “good fit” for the Café where they had been baristas since January 2012 and July 2011, respectively.  

“I was absolutely surprised,” says Williams, who had asked his supervisor a week or two before if there were any problems with his work performance.  “She said ‘No, you’re a great employee,’ and she was praising me.”  

For the past three months, Williams and Enxuga had been meeting outside of work with other employees from Just Us!’ Spring Garden café to discuss forming a union.   

"Every employee except the most recent hires attended the meetings, which happened as often as twice a week,” says Williams. “It was a long process because we wanted to take the time to make sure that all the staff had all their questions regarding starting a union answered to the best of our ability and to their satisfaction.”

“We were just at the end of tying up all the information for the questions people had.  And then we got dismissed,” Williams says.

Leading up to what Williams and Enxuga call their dismissal, and what Just Us! General Manager Debra Moore calls a “parting of ways,” (both employees were given a severance package), Williams says he and other employees were approached by their supervisor Ali Larson and asked about their unionization drive. “’Do you know anything about disgruntled employees, issues that weren’t brought up, talk about unions and labour boards?’ are the words she used with me,” says Williams.

Larson declined an interview, saying all questions should be directed to Just Us! General Manager Debra Moore, who works at the co-op's head office in Wolfville.

“I never heard a thing about it,” said Moore, who says she knows nothing of the meetings to discuss unionization.

According to Moore, Williams and Enxuga’s departure from Just Us! was a mutual decision. “They weren’t happy and we weren’t happy and we just parted ways. There was no dismissal at all.”

“The type of workplace we are, which is really self-management and participatory workplace, for some people that’s more difficult than it is for others,” explains Moore. “So, sometimes it’s better to part ways.”

But Enxuga says it was precisely Just Us!’ alternative model that attracted him to the company to begin with. “I was excited at the possibility of having a work environment that has social justice values,” he said.  

Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-operative specializes in fair trade organic coffee, with the tagline “People and the planet before profits.”  Part of the company’s stated purpose is “to foster a more democratic workplace and supply chain, where everyone can participate and benefit.”

Just Us! is incorporated as a worker co-operative.  According to its website, a co-op is “another way of doing business based on community ownership and democratic principles. It is not designed to maximize profits or returns to investors. All employees are eligible to become members after working two years and making a modest investment.”

According to Moore, Just Us! currently has 14 worker-members, or about 20 per cent of its workforce.

According to the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation (CWCF) website, it is possible, although not necessarily common, for worker co-ops to unionize. “In some co-ops the non-management workers may come to feel unfairly treated and seek to unionize over the objections of the management employees,” says the site. “This is an unfortunate situation, and is a sign that some members feel excluded from decision-making.”

“At first I was starry-eyed and really excited [about working with Just Us!]," says Enxuga.  But the longer he worked with the co-op, the more he felt there were discrepancies between stated ideals and on-the-ground experience.   

“I’d say there was a lot of small issues – things like breaks and tips and room bookings – that isolated are pretty minor but built up to create this larger culture where we felt our voices weren’t being valued in the co-op.”

“One of the biggest reasons we wanted the union was to put a system in place to negotiate things within our collective agreement,” says Enxuga.  “We don’t want to just count on the benevolence of our bosses.  But also because unless we have a union there’s a power dynamic going on between us and our bosses where we’re not protected.  One of the reasons we want to have a union is to have a grievance process, where we could be legally protected in case of mistreatment, like being dismissed.”

Moore says she doesn’t know anything about the situation at the Spring Garden café. “I don’t have a clue as to the reason they decided to speak to the union,” she says.

“I’ve been a union supporter all my life,” adds Moore when asked about Just Us!’ stance on unions. “…. In general, I’ve been involved with the NDP and unions all my life.  I think they’ve got their place for sure.”  

Jason Edwards, labour organizer for SEIU Local 2, was approached by Williams and Enxuga in December about unionizing and has been in regular contact with the employees since then.  Edwards, who had always been a supporter of Just Us! and its mandate, says he was shocked to learn that Williams and Enxuga had lost their jobs.  “Some employers you’d expect that of them…but with Just Us!, I was incredibly surprised that they were so heavy-handed.”

“I think when the evidence comes out it will be very clear to everybody that Just Us! dismissed employees because they were forming a union,” says Edwards.  “That is incredibly illegal.”

Enxuga says they are fighting back.  On Friday, SEIU Local 2 filed an Unfair Labour Practice complaint with the Labour Board of Nova Scotia, on behalf of Williams and Enxuga. They’re also planning a rally on April 7 in front of the Spring Garden cafe to protest their dismissal. Williams and Enxuga want their jobs back and for Just Us! to recognize the union.  

“[We] basically want [Just Us!] to uphold its mandate of being a social-justice kind of organization,” says Williams.  “We want it to uphold what it says it is.”  

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1019 words


they were given good reviews

they were given good reviews just a few weeks ago, no issues brought up then, then they were all of a sudden dismissed (according to the ROE) fishy to me.

Just Us! not exceptional

These workers lost their livelihoods (were fired) on account of trying to broker better conditions for themselves and their fellow workers through bringing in a union. The chronology of events and other evidence makes makes it not only obvious, in my view, but fitting of a typical pattern in other workplaces when a union drive is found out.

Of course Just Us must continue to maintain that they were unaware of the union drive and that the dismissal had to do with other reasons. It is illegal to dismiss people for trying to organize a union, violating their freedom of association. I do not actually expect Just Us to simply reinstate of the workers because that is tacitly admitting their act of retaliation. It makes sense for Just Us to hold their legal line. I think the workers have more of a shot at gaining something through the complaint on their behalf through the SEIU.

With enough pressure, I think there can eventually be a union at Just Us. It has been and will continue to be a battle though, just as in other workplaces.

I think it's also important to keep in mind that Just Us never agreed to any especially higher standards in their cafe operations than what you would find in other cafes around town. It doesn't make sense to me to give them any exceptional regard beyond other, similar businesses. They never actually said they would accept unionization in their workplace. As for the coop structure, I think that's a non-issue in the case of these workers. It did not bring material benefits or protections to the fired workers because, as mentioned, they are not amongst the minority of worker-owners. The Fair Trade Label is also a non-issue in the case of these workers. Fair Trade signifies nothing about labour conditions at the local cafes; it applies to the coffee production, making sure that the workers at the point of production are afforded minimum labour standards as dictated by the label. The local Just Us cafe workers have their labour standards protected according to the minimum standards in the NS Employment Standards Act. If they want their working conditions to go beyond these minimums, they must organize as they have been trying to do.

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