Why restaurants won’t serve workers’ rights

Unpacking the cycle of abuse in the restaurant industry

The Not My Stella’s Instagram account has exposed a disturbing degree of abusive norms within the local Stella’s restaurant chain, one that Basia Sokal, president of the Winnipeg Labour Council, says is all too common in the restaurant industry.

“It’s absolutely devastating to see that, and, I hate to say it, it’s actually not surprising,” Sokal says.

Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, says industry-wide abuse is often excused by restaurant owners and management because “the fast food industry and restaurant industry typically face a high turnover, typically are populated by young people or newcomers and are usually pretty low-wage positions. Which I think is by design, and I think employers do what they can to discourage (unionization).”

Not My Stella’s has not publicly commented on whether or not there have been or are ongoing attempts to unionize the restaurant chain, but Rebeck says he has heard people wondering why Stella’s isn’t unionized.

“Unionization doesn’t necessarily lead to a harassment-free workplace, unfortunately,” Sokal says. “And I don’t want to put rose-coloured glasses on it and say that (abuse) doesn’t happen in unionized workplaces.”

But, Rebeck says unionization “gives (workers) additional resources (and) additional voices to help them have their rights respected and exercise their rights,” as well as a built-in champion for navigating systems and advocating for workers.

“Restaurants, especially in Winnipeg, are not traditionally unionized, and there is a perpetuation of a culture of ‘it’s okay to behave this way,’ as we have been learning through the media,” Sokal says.

She says says the current provincial government has made unionizing more difficult.

“Traditionally, the majority (of employees) would have to sign a card, and then it would go to the labour board, and then you would get your union, and there was a whole process that followed that,” she says. “But now, you have to get that process done with, and now the provincial government has implemented a ‘second vote.’”

“In that time frame between the initial signing of cards for a union and the second vote for all of the members to vote for a union, the employer can actually harass and intimidate workers to the point that people no longer feel comfortable,” she says. “When it goes to submitting a ballot for unionization, they’ve changed their mind or even been fired.”

Rebeck says given that Winnipeg was the first city to have Tim Hortons and Canadian KFC locations unionized, “it is possible, but it’s done location by location.”

“I’d love to see a union, but I’d also love to see the workers come together and tell us what they need,” Sokal says.

The Instagram account Not My Stella’s has posted and talked to other media sources about the five demands they have for Stella’s.

Sokal also says actions from employers such as The Tallest Poppy’s introduction of a “shop steward” representative for workers have positive potential.

"Ninety-nine per cent of the time, an employer is not going to come to unions and say ‘I’d like to put a union in my workplace,’” Sokal says. “So while it’s not the greatest thing, I do think it’s a positive response rather than taking a backseat and saying that’s not my workplace.”

To those concerned about their working conditions without an advocate, Rebeck says he encourages “workers of all stripes to be aware of what (their) rights are.”

“If they’re not sure, they can visit the (Employment Standards Board) website, they can call the Human Rights commission,” he says. “It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to do that in confidence, but we need to know our rights.”

Published in Volume 73, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 22, 2018)

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