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Last August, the staff of a busy Starbucks drive-through in Victoria joined the United Steelworkers, or USW, a union that represents more than 225,000 private-sector workers in Canada.MARK MAKELA/Reuters

Staff at Canada’s sole unionized Starbucks location have ratified their first three-year collective agreement – a rarity in a sector that traditionally has minimal union representation.

Last August, the staff of a busy Starbucks drive-through in Victoria joined the United Steelworkers, or USW, a union that represents more than 225,000 private-sector workers in Canada. Almost a year later, they have now achieved a contract that they say will not only raise wages but also create a safer working environment – a major motivation behind their unionizing drive.

In the past, workers at the outlet would often face harassment from certain customers “for weeks and weeks and weeks” without receiving sufficient support from management, said Izzy Adachi, a barista who helped start the organizing effort and UWS bargaining committee member. And over the past year, the pandemic has only exacerbated this type of public abuse, especially over the mask-wearing mandate.

Now, staff will be able to file grievances against management. Izzy Adachi called this accountability measure the “biggest win” from the collective agreement.

“I think that within the service industry, there is this idea that we’re supposed to let people take advantage of us or treat us poorly just because it’s ‘unskilled labour.’ I don’t see that as fair,” they said.

The collective agreement also increases the workers’ wage by up to $2.47 an hour, depending on length of service, and offers 10 paid days of leave for those facing domestic violence, doubling what B.C. mandates.

Starbucks Canada said in a statement that it did not expect to change the outlet’s pricing because of the collective agreement.

The company maintained that “the best way to create an exceptional experience for partners [employees] is through an open and direct working relationship.” It pointed to its array of benefits, including paid time off for sick leave, self-isolation, COVID-19 vaccine shots and vaccine side effects. On May 31, it also bumped employees’ starting hourly rates to 25 cents above provincial minimum wages and offered at least a 5-per-cent increase for hourly baristas, shift supervisors and café attendants.

And with the contract, this particular Starbucks outlet will only staff unionized workers and it is not allowed to work in other locations at the same time. Izzy Adachi said the location is “so busy” that this restriction is unlikely to be a big issue and it could be eased once more outlets are unionized.

Starbucks Canada did not comment on whether it expects the collective agreement to spark more unionizing drives.

There is growing interest from other Starbucks workers across the country, said Stephen Hunt, director of USW Western Canada. But coffee shops have traditionally been difficult to organize because of their small staff numbers and high turnover rate. And at a big company like Starbucks, it would be time-consuming to unionize one outlet at a time.

Fiona McQuarrie, a business and labour expert, said unions could organize workers at multiple sites of the same employer, but this would compound the challenge of guaranteeing sufficient support across the board. Another suggestion by labour advocates is sectoral bargaining, in which unions could organize all workers in the same sector in the same area – all coffee shop workers in Victoria, for example. But Dr. McQuarrie, a recently retired business professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, said this process would require legislative change for it to take hold on a large scale.

Izzy Adachi added that organizing could be streamlined by removing the required secret ballot vote after workers have already signed cards expressing interest in joining a union – a model that the ruling B.C. NDP promoted but did not introduce in 2019 after facing opposition from the Greens. Unions are still advocating for it.

Achieving a collective agreement is also not the end of the race.

The Victoria drive-through is not the first Starbucks outlet in Canada to be unionized. A number of locations in B.C., Saskatchewan and Quebec had the same status in the 1990s and 2000s, but they all eventually decertified. For the Victoria location, the test of its sustainability will come in three years when the contract has to be renegotiated, said Dr. McQuarrie.

Meanwhile, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1518 – the largest private-sector union in B.C. – is also running a campaign to organize café workers. So far, it has brought in staff from Matchstick Coffee and Cartems Donuts, two small Vancouver-based chains.

“[The vote and collective agreement] send a signal to say workers are willing to organize, even in tough industries,” Mr. Hunt said.

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