Coburg Coffee’s move to unionize

Employees at the south-end cafe say they want a voice

Coburg Coffee baristas Laura Spaetzel (left) and Sam Krawec wear their union t-shirts in front of the cafe - HILARY BEAUMONT
Hilary Beaumont
Coburg Coffee baristas Laura Spaetzel (left) and Sam Krawec wear their union t-shirts in front of the cafe

Aunion vote at Coburg Coffee has tipped into uncertainty. Two pro-union baristas who cast ballots Monday afternoon say they're confident the count went their way, however, of the 15 votes cast, they're sure of only six that favour joining the Service Employees International Union.

Laura Spaetzel cast her ballot on top of a laundry machine in the cafe's basement. In the week leading up to the vote, she and co-worker Sam Krawec noticed three new workers who are friends and family of the employers clocking in on days they weren't scheduled. Nova Scotia SEIU organizer Sebastien Labelle says the union will challenge five of the ballots on the grounds they were not cast by current employees.

Cafe owner Kelly Irvine declined to comment Monday. In an email to staff dated June 5, she and co-owner Jane Merchant write that it's important for every employee to vote, and caution against being "overly influenced" by the idea "that having a union will guarantee certain benefits." "Have you considered whether the SEIU is an appropriate Union to be representing you, and whether they have any knowledge about the specific issues regarding Coburg Coffee?" the letter also reads.

The company is not perfect and there will be bumps along the way, but problems are best resolved "through a direct relationship with you and not through a third party," the cafe owners write.

Staff began talking about a union last September, Krawec and Spaetzel say. Workers felt they couldn't voice concerns to the employer, and they weren't treated equally compared to the employers' family members, who also work at the cafe. One employee was fired because of her personality, Spaetzel says. Coburg workers watched the recent labour action unfold at Second Cup and Just Us! and saw unionization as a solution.

The two baristas have worked on and off for years in the service industry while working on university degrees. Spaetzel estimates Coburg workers collectively have more than $100,000 in student debt. This reality combined with poor job prospects for young university grads in Halifax also precipitated their desire to unionize.

It's been a tense few weeks at Coburg, but the unionization attempt has been tame so far compared to those at the Spring Garden Road Just Us! and Quinpool Road's Second Cup last year. Unlike those two cafes, the Coburg owners have not fired anyone in relation to union activity, Labelle says, so there hasn't been a need to organize protests.

As for Just Us! and Second Cup, Labelle acknowledges there has been staff turnover at both locations since the union votes. Workers have since clinched higher wages in their collective agreements: Second Cup workers received a 47 cent raise from minimum wage to $10.82. Just Us! will raise wages by 25 to 30 cents in December, and another 25 cents in 2015. Just Us! baristas currently make between $10.75 and $13.45 an hour depending on seniority.

"We're doing this to improve Coburg Coffee as a business," Labelle says, "so we're asking people to go by Coburg Coffee, grab a cup of joe and voice support of union-served coffee."

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