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Vancouver’s Only Unionized Starbucks Is Closing

Months after an organizing drive, the corporation is shutting the outlet.

Zak Vescera 4 Sep 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Starbucks is closing its only unionized outlet in Vancouver six months after workers signed cards.

The coffee giant says the outlet at 4467 Dunbar St. will close at the end of this month.

Spokeswoman Leanna Rizzi said the closure was because of a “natural lease expiry” and that the location did not allow for needed renovations.

In a statement, she said the store’s union status was not a factor in the decision to close and that staff will be offered jobs at other locations.

Scott Lunny, who represents the United Steelworkers in Western Canada, says he has no reason to believe Starbucks closed the store because it unionized.

“It wasn’t out of the blue that the Dunbar location was potentially not sustainable from Starbucks’ perspective,” Lunny said in an interview. “We‘re still working through that and we’re trying to do the best we can to look out for those workers.”

Workers at the Dunbar Starbucks voted to join USW 2009 in February after a covert organizing campaign spearheaded by Frédérique Martineau, a 20-year-old barista.

Shortly after, Starbucks granted a significant annual raise to all its employees in British Columbia — except for workers in its four unionized outlets.

USW 2009 filed a complaint with the province’s Labour Relations Board, arguing Starbucks was effectively penalizing workers for joining a union and dissuading others from doing the same.

But USW 2009 withdrew the complaint last week after it struck a deal with Starbucks that will see unionized Starbucks workers get paid retroactively for wages they lost out on since May 15, when the raise took effect.

The United Steelworkers have spent years trying to unionize Starbucks locations in British Columbia and Alberta, part of a wave of organizing at the company’s stores across the United States and Canada.

The Dunbar Starbucks was one of only four locations in British Columbia that have been unionized.

“Obviously, it’s one less store,” Lunny said. “But I don’t think it hampers the overall movement.”

Many Starbucks organizing drives have hit stiff resistance from the company.

In a previous interview with The Tyee, Martineau said colleagues were interrogated about the union drive after management learned about it. She said managers had also warned workers the store might close down and said those concerns were only raised after the union drive became public.

Veteran labour organizers say the company has a long history of discouraging unionization at its stores.

In the mid-2000s, John Bowman was a national representative for the Canadian Auto Workers, or CAW, who were trying to unionize Starbucks locations in Vancouver. They succeeded in signing up roughly a dozen stores, Bowman said.

Bowman said Starbucks often prides itself on its relationship with its employees, who it calls “partners.”

“A lot of the workers naively thought that Starbucks, because they say all the right words, would be open to unionizing. I don’t think any of us thought that,” Bowman said.

He said Starbucks sometimes withheld pay increases from union shops that were given to other stores. In other instances, when workers won wages or better conditions in collective agreements, he said Starbucks would give the same benefits to every other store in British Columbia, which removed the incentive to join the union.

He said individual Starbucks managers would also respond with hostility when a store unionized.

“Typically, the manager would have a meeting where they get all emotional, and in some cases cry in front of the workers,” Bowman said. “They turned it into a very personal thing.”

Jef Keighley, another former CAW representative, said the company’s tactics meant the union struggled to sign up a critical mass of stores in a given area. He said that meant they could not meaningfully hurt the company’s profits through a strike, since there are so many locations in Metro Vancouver.

Eventually, the CAW’s campaigned fizzled, and the stores that had joined de-certified.

Keighley doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence the company has closed the Dunbar store so soon after it unionized.

“It’s their standard operating procedure,” Keighley said. “Basically, they do everything possible to erode the perceived benefits of a union.”

Bowman agrees the timing is “suspicious.”

He said successfully unionizing Starbucks locations will take a long-term plan.

“Really with these kinds of workplaces, the certification is the easy part. And I’m not saying it’s easy,” Bowman said. “The hard part is taking those certifications and building something that is attractive to bringing in more workers.”  [Tyee]

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