labor

Unionizing Starbucks

Just a few years ago, if someone had said that more than 200 Starbucks outlets in North America would be unionized, the response would have been something like this.  Yet here we are, just after Labour Day, and….more than 200 Starbucks outlets are unionized, including several in Canada. These unionizations are remarkable not just because they’re happening, but also because the successful unionization campaigns look nothing like what unionizing efforts are supposed to look like.

Starbucks is a huge and very wealthy international corporation, so it has lots of resources to oppose unionization in its “stores”. With many of its locations in the US, it benefits from US labour laws that are generally less union-friendly than in Canada – for example, captive audience meetings are banned in Canada but permitted in the US – so US employers tend to be more successful at resisting unionization. And because of how Canadian and US labour laws are structured, unionizing a company like Starbucks, with multiple locations, generally means the union has to run an organizing campaign at each individual location, rather than being able to unionize all of them at once. (In 2021 Starbucks had over 1300 locations in Canada and nearly 9000 locations in the US, in addition to licensed outlets operated in partnership with other retailers.)

Most traditional union organizers would look at this situation and say that it would be just too difficult and too expensive to organize unions at Starbucks, and that any attempt to do so would probably fail. To have any chance at success, a union would have to be very experienced, and have skilled organizers and major resources, to combat the extensive anti-unionization campaign and anti-union tactics that Starbucks would undoubtedly roll out. Also, because the food service sector tends to have high rates of employee turnover, most large unions have avoided organizing workplaces in that sector, because of the very real possibility that workers supporting the union might leave or be fired before the union is formally recognized.

So it’s incredible not only that there are now so many unionized Starbucks locations, but that (more…)

The Weight of a Name

When an organization is hiring someone to fill a job, it’s very difficult to avoid bias in the hiring process – because, at some point, the hiring decision is subjective. The applicants for the job may have very similar qualifications and experience, which then usually leads to assessments such as how well each applicant would “fit” within the organization. “Fit” is a subjective assessment, and when subjective assessments become an exercise in “how much is this person like the people that are already here”, that’s when unintended or explicit bias can affect the hiring decision.

Numerous studies have shown that hiring decisions can be biased by factors like the ethnicity of the applicant’s name, their appearance, and their social class. Now, two economists, Qi Ge and Stephen Wu, have published a very interesting research study of another possible source of bias in hiring: how difficult it is to pronounce the applicant’s name.

The data that these researchers used for their study was taken from (more…)

Fact-Checking Card-Checking in British Columbia

In April, the British Columbia government introduced legislation that would change the Labour Relations Code and allow automatic certification in union organizing campaigns. This change would make it much easier for unions to become the legal workplace representative for employees. The usual pro-business pro-management organizations – Chambers of Commerce, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Business Council of BC – are complaining that this change would “weaken the democratic right for workers to exercise choice through a secret ballot”.  The Business Council has also sent a letter to BC Premier John Horgan with a lengthy list of complaints about the legislation’s potential impacts.  And the “non-partisan” Fraser Institute has called the proposed legislation “unfair to workers”.

At best, these statements are misleading. At worse, they reflect an implicit belief that unions can only hurt businesses’ operations and profitability – a belief which is also highly inaccurate.

To understand why these statements are so troubling, it’s useful to know what automatic certification is. When a union (more…)

“It’s Beyond Frustrating”: Why Athletes are Still Being Abused

The Olympics are supposed to be an exciting and enjoyable experience, for athletes and for spectators. But for figure skating fans, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing could best be characterized as stressful and depressing.

After the team event – the first skating event on the schedule – it was revealed that 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, the favourite to win the women’s event, had previously tested positive for a banned drug intended to treat chest pain. After an emergency hearing by the Court for Arbitration in Sport, Valieva was allowed to continue competing, but the medals in the team event were not awarded. Valieva ended up placing fourth in the women’s event, and her teammate Alexandra Trusova, who came second, had an emotional meltdown at rinkside, shouting that she hated skating and would never go on the ice again.

While watching all of this drama and turmoil unfold, I couldn’t help but think that for almost 30 years we’ve known there were problems in the sport of skating. In 1995, sportswriter Joan Ryan’s book Little Girls In Pretty Boxes painted a terrible picture of abusive coaching, unhealthy training practices, and incredible stress placed on young figure skaters and gymnasts. Thankfully, as an adult skater, I got into the sport when I was old enough to be in control of what I did. But it’s no secret to anyone who follows skating that, even after well-documented investigations like those in Ryan’s book, there are still very significant problems within the sport.

So I decided to get in touch with Ryan and see if she would be willing to be interviewed about whether anything has changed, 30 years after her whistleblowing. She kindly agreed, and we talked this week. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

 

Fiona McQuarrie [FM]: What’s your take on the doping scandal at the Olympics?

Joan Ryan [JR]: The Washington Post asked me to write an op-ed on that a couple of weeks ago, and, you know, I wrote this book 27 years ago now. There has been change on the gymnastics side, unfortunately because of Larry Nassar, and because of the gymnasts themselves. They have risen up like an army, and they are the ones that are going to make sure it finally changes. That’s the only reason I have any hope that it’s going to change now after all these years.

I haven’t followed figure skating as closely over those 27 years, but the US skaters certainly seem healthier to me. I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but clearly the total destruction of two of the three Russian figure skaters is a clear sign that it’s dysfunctional. There’s clearly (more…)

The Right to Disconnect

The boundaries between home and work became blurred when the COVID-19 pandemic caused many jobs to be shifted online. Workers who were not permitted to come into their workplaces were working on computers in their living rooms, dining areas, spare rooms (if they had one), and even closets and bedroom. But even before that, boundaries were already being blurred by communications technology such as cellphones, text messaging, and email, allowing employers to contact employees at any hour of the day or night – which for many workers made them feel as if they are never really off work.

Ontario’s labour minister has proposed a legal “right to disconnect” is a step toward solving the problem of employers expecting workers to always be “on”. This is an important initiative, and the problem needs to be addressed. But this on its own is not going to fix the more fundamental and widespread workplace issues that the pandemic has highlighted, and which should be more of a priority.

The legal “right to disconnect” was first implemented in France in 2017, allowing employees to not answer work-related emails or calls during their time off. Canada’s federal government struck a task force in 2020 to explore the possibility of similar legislation for federally regulated occupations.  Ontario’s proposed legislation would require organizations with 25 or more employees to develop policies around work-related communications, such as establishing expectations for response times to emails.

It might seem that policies like this could cause even more stress for workers and employers, by compressing working time while maintaining expectations of continued productivity. However, (more…)

“The Power of a Collective”: The Experience of Unionizing at a Chapters/Indigo Store

As an author and as a reader, I love bookstores. I want to support bookstores that treat their employees fairly and respectfully, because knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff are the difference between a good bookstore and a great bookstore. So I was delighted when the staff at my local Chapters/Indigo store became members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, and recently reached their first collective agreement.

Traditionally, retail outlets staffed by younger or part-time workers have been perceived as challenging to unionize. I was curious about the process that led to the formation of the Indigo 771 union, so I got in touch with Ariel Popil and Alex Johnson, the two union stewards at the store. They graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the experience of organizing the union.

[Note: since this discussion took place, workers at another Chapters/Indigo location, at Kennedy Commons in Scarborough, Ontario, have started a certification campaign.]

How many full-time and part-time staff work at Indigo/Chapters Pinetree? How many of those staff are in the union?

There are about 30 part-time staff members at any given time, and we have one full-time staff member. All part-time and full-time staff are part of the union.

When did the organizing campaign start, and why did it start? What was happening at the store that made the workers want to be represented by a union? (more…)

Pandemics, Productivity, and Gender

After ten months of pandemic-related lockdowns, rescheduling, and cancellations, it’s almost becoming clichéd to say that “work as we know it may have changed forever”. But it’s true. The key word, though, is “may”. We don’t know if the way many of us are working now is going to be the way we’ll always work. We don’t know if employers and organizations are permanently changing the way that they’re going to organize or run their operations.

But one thing we do know is that the pandemic has had an unequal effect on workers’ productivity. Both women and men are working at home more, but (more…)

(Not) Helping Canadian Journalism

The Local Journalism Initiative (LJI) is a fund set up by the Canadian government in 2019 to “support the creation of original civic journalism that covers the diverse needs of underserved communities across Canada”.  News organizations can apply for funds to cover the salaries of newly hired reporters, if those reporters are assigned to specific beats that address “news deserts”.   To maintain editorial independence, the fund is administered by a group of news industry associations that oversee the application and adjudication process.

Media organizations everywhere are having financial problems, largely because of competition from free online content and because of advertising buys going to websites and social media. So the intent of the LJI is commendable, especially if it can help support local reporting – which, as we’ve recently seen in the US, is critical in keeping governments accountable, and in building democracy by keeping citizens informed.

But LJI funds should not be going to media organizations that have largely been the architects of their own financial misfortune – and which could also be blamed for creating the “news deserts” that the LJI is trying to fix. Two obvious examples of such organizations that LJI has funded are the newspaper chains Postmedia and Saltwire.

Jeremy Klaszus, publisher of the award-winning online publication Sprawl Calgary, posted a thread on Twitter this week, after Sprawl’s application for LJI funding was rejected for a second straight year. (more…)

A Crisis at Work

There’s more than enough chaos going on in the world right now. But amidst the coronavirus crisis, a couple of trends in the world of work are becoming more important.

We have been told for years that (more…)

Uber, Lyft, and Independent Contractors

Ridesharing officially came to British Columbia in January, when the provincial Passenger Transportation Board approved operating licenses for Lyft and Uber.  Vancouver is one of the last major cities in North America to get ridesharing, partly because of opposition from the local taxi industry and partly because of the lengthy process to amend the complex provincial legislation regulating rides for hire.

At the moment, ridesharing is limited to the Lower Mainland area (which includes Vancouver), and ridesharing drivers are more strictly regulated than they are in other regions. Uber and Lyft drivers in BC are required to have the same type of driver’s license as a taxi driver, and also have to pay a per-vehicle licensing fee in every municipality they do business in. Those costs will make it difficult for Uber and Lyft to get the types of drivers they do in other cities, who (in Uber’s words) are part-timers “fitting their driving around what matters most” and usually aren’t commercially-licensed drivers.

Several challenges to Uber and Lyft’s operations are already under way. BC taxi companies have filed a lawsuit against Uber and Lyft being granted permission to operate, arguing that the ridesharing firms have an unfair advantage because their licensing requirements are different from taxis. The mayor of Surrey has refused to allow Uber and Lyft to operate in that city. And riders with disabilities are upset that they may not be able to use Uber or Lyft because neither company requires its drivers to have accessible vehicles.

However, one of the most interesting challenges to Uber and Lyft’s arrival actually happened before either company was given permission to start operating. That challenge came from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which has already (more…)