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Starbucks employees bring in umbrellas before closing their store early for training in Vancouver on June 11, 2018.BEN NELMS/For The Globe and Mail

The wave of unionization of Starbucks coffee shops in the United States that has dominated much of the talk about the resurgence of America’s labour movement is showing signs of making its way into Canada.

Over the past five weeks alone, six Starbucks shops in British Columbia and Alberta have applied for union certification. While this number is still minuscule – Starbucks has more than 1,400 stores across the country – union organizers say they are seeing a growing frustration among the chain’s employees in Canada over wages and work hours not seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Workers are realizing they are living through a time of great inflation. They are realizing they generate money for Starbucks, but they only get a small slice of the cake. The corporation gets most of the cake. And they are realizing that’s not okay,” said Pablo Guerra, an organizer with the United Steelworkers union who is spearheading a campaign to get more Starbucks shops across the country unionized.

At present, just one Starbucks in Canada has a union contract: an outlet in Victoria. In a statement e-mailed to The Globe and Mail about the USW union drive, a Starbucks spokesperson said the company will raise wages for all employees across the country starting this summer – except at the Victoria location. The statement noted that it is the third hourly pay increase workers have received in just over 12 months.

The reason workers at the Douglas Street Starbucks in Victoria will not receive a pay hike, according to the spokesperson, is because they have their own collective agreement with its “own unique wage increase schedule.”

The union drive is having some success. In May, five Starbucks in Lethbridge, Alta., filed an application with the province’s labour relations board to unionize. Workers had reached out to USW representatives after years of grappling with employee shortages and being forced to come into work sick because of a lack of workers to cover shifts, which led to a high rate of exhaustion and burnout.

Then, in early June, a Starbucks in Surrey, B.C., voted to unionize, becoming the second Starbucks in the province to gain union representation.

But despite close to 300 union drives south of the border over the past six months, resulting in 170 unionized Starbucks stores in the U.S. to date, that momentum did not gain traction in Canada until this spring. Indeed, the last time Starbucks employees in Canada voted to unionize was in December, 2020, at the Victoria outlet.

“We are certainly starting to see some kind of contagion effect,” said Stephanie Ross, director of the labour studies program at McMaster University. “I was actually surprised at how muted the spillover effect was in Canada from those union drives in the U.S. But it does provide an inspiration for workers here, when their counterparts in the U.S. are having so much success.”

Data from the U.S. National Labor Relations Board show there was a 57-per-cent increase in the number of applications for union representation from October, 2021, to April, 2022. The agency said there has been a surge in labour activity not seen since more than a decade ago.

There is no national labour relations board in Canada, so a country-to-country comparison on union applications is difficult to measure, but the most recent data from Statistics Canada suggest the number of unionized workers in Canada has remained relatively static over the past five years.

According to the USW’s Mr. Guerra, Starbucks workers in Lethbridge had already begun discussions among themselves a year ago about unionizing before they reached out to him. There are just five Starbucks in Lethbridge, which cumulatively employ about 115 workers in a town with a population of approximately 92,000.

One tactic Starbucks uses to dissuade unionization, Mr. Guerra said, is to tell employees they face the likelihood of their store closing down if they vote to join a union. “We thought, okay, if we can get all these workers from five stores together as a group to vote in favour of unionizing, [the company] can’t really use that as a tactic.”

The process of unionizing is slightly more complex in Alberta than in other provinces. A majority of workers have to submit union cards that state their intention to unionize before an application is filed with the Alberta Labour Relations Board.

The board will then hear objections from the employer before making a decision on whether workers can vote on unionization. To win the vote, the union must receive support of more than half of workers. The five applications to unionize Starbucks’ Lethbridge stores are still with the labour board, and no date has been set for a vote.

At the Starbucks in Surrey, a union-certification application automatically led to an approval to unionize by the B.C. Labour Relations Board on June 10 because of a new single-step certification law that took effect the week before. The legal amendment essentially allows unionization to occur when more than 50 per cent of workers sign union cards indicating that they want to unionize. Previously (and in most other provinces, including Ontario), there would have to be a majority vote in favour of unionizing as a second step, after employees sign union cards.

The single-step process removes the opportunity for a company to pursue anti-union tactics, according to Scott Lunny, the USW director for Western Canada and the Territories. And Mr. Guerra expects many more Starbucks stores in B.C. will unionize because of the province’s new law.

Starbucks has faced a turbulent six months since the pace of unionization in the U.S. started picking up steam this year. In April, the company brought back long-time chief executive officer Howard Schultz, but his approach to quelling the union rebellion – enhancing pay and benefits – triggered investor worries that costs would skyrocket.

Starbucks’ share price has fallen 16 per cent since Mr. Schultz took the reins, and a number of Wall Street analysts, including Wedbush Securities and Citi Research, recently downgraded their ratings of the coffee chain’s shares from buy to neutral, citing the uncertainty of the labour situation.

There’s a history of Starbucks workers in Canada unionizing, said Larry Savage, a professor of labour studies at Brock University. In the late 1990s, 12 Starbucks locations in B.C. successfully unionized with the Canadian Auto Workers union (now part of Unifor), but poor negotiations with management over the next decade led to workers applying for decertification with the B.C. Labour Relations Board.

At the time, CAW representative John Bowman told the Vancouver Sun that representing just 150 workers did not give the union enough clout when negotiating with Starbucks management. He called the company anti-union and said it never had any interest in working with the CAW.

Peggy Nash, a former NDP MP and a prominent figure in the labour movement in the 1990s and 2000s, helped organize those Starbucks workers decades ago. “I remember thinking there was so much potential here when we started winning those union votes . But I don’t think our union was serious enough about prioritizing that sector … a coffee chain … at the time. We didn’t put the resources in that Starbucks did,” she said.

Dr. Savage believes it will be tough for the USW to gain widespread traction in favour of unionizing Starbucks workers across the country, unless the union launches a very public campaign similar to the one in the U.S. “The Starbucks campaign strategy in the U.S. is about movement building. It is high profile and it is getting a lot of attention,” he said.

But Mr. Guerra remains hopeful. “The sky’s the limit,” he said, when asked what the goal of the USW’s Starbucks campaign is. “Workers are waking up to the reality that rich corporations like Starbucks don’t have their best interests at heart.”

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