Elijah Williams was caught off guard last week when he and fellow Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op employee Shay Enxuga were told they were no longer a “good fit” for the Café where they had been baristas since January 2012 and July 2011, respectively.
“I was absolutely surprised,” says Williams, who had asked his supervisor a week or two before if there were any problems with his work performance. “She said ‘No, you’re a great employee,’ and she was praising me.”
For the past three months, Williams and Enxuga had been meeting outside of work with other employees from Just Us!’ Spring Garden café to discuss forming a union.
“Every employee except the most recent hires attended the meetings, which happened as often as twice a week,” says Williams. “It was a long process because we wanted to take the time to make sure that all the staff had all their questions regarding starting a union answered to the best of our ability and to their satisfaction.”
“We were just at the end of tying up all the information for the questions people had. And then we got dismissed,” Williams says.
Leading up to what Williams and Enxuga call their dismissal, and what Just Us! General Manager Debra Moore calls a “parting of ways,” (both employees were given a severance package), Williams says he and other employees were approached by their supervisor Ali Larson and asked about their unionization drive. “’Do you know anything about disgruntled employees, issues that weren’t brought up, talk about unions and labour boards?’ are the words she used with me,” says Williams.
Larson declined an interview, saying all questions should be directed to Just Us! General Manager Debra Moore, who works at the co-op’s head office in Wolfville.
“I never heard a thing about it,” said Moore, who says she knows nothing of the meetings to discuss unionization.
According to Moore, Williams and Enxuga’s departure from Just Us! was a mutual decision. “They weren’t happy and we weren’t happy and we just parted ways. There was no dismissal at all.”
“The type of workplace we are, which is really self-management and participatory workplace, for some people that’s more difficult than it is for others,” explains Moore. “So, sometimes it’s better to part ways.”
But Enxuga says it was precisely Just Us!’ alternative model that attracted him to the company to begin with. “I was excited at the possibility of having a work environment that has social justice values,” he said.
Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-operative specializes in fair trade organic coffee, with the tagline “People and the planet before profits.” Part of the company’s stated purpose is “to foster a more democratic workplace and supply chain, where everyone can participate and benefit.”
Just Us! is incorporated as a worker co-operative. According to its website, a co-op is “another way of doing business based on community ownership and democratic principles. It is not designed to maximize profits or returns to investors. All employees are eligible to become members after working two years and making a modest investment.”
According to Moore, Just Us! currently has 14 worker-members, or about 20 per cent of its workforce.
According to the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation (CWCF) website, it is possible, although not necessarily common, for worker co-ops to unionize. “In some co-ops the non-management workers may come to feel unfairly treated and seek to unionize over the objections of the management employees,” says the site. “This is an unfortunate situation, and is a sign that some members feel excluded from decision-making.”
“At first I was starry-eyed and really excited [about working with Just Us!],” says Enxuga. But the longer he worked with the co-op, the more he felt there were discrepancies between stated ideals and on-the-ground experience.
“I’d say there was a lot of small issues – things like breaks and tips and room bookings – that isolated are pretty minor but built up to create this larger culture where we felt our voices weren’t being valued in the co-op.”
“One of the biggest reasons we wanted the union was to put a system in place to negotiate things within our collective agreement,” says Enxuga. “We don’t want to just count on the benevolence of our bosses. But also because unless we have a union there’s a power dynamic going on between us and our bosses where we’re not protected. One of the reasons we want to have a union is to have a grievance process, where we could be legally protected in case of mistreatment, like being dismissed.”
Moore says she doesn’t know anything about the situation at the Spring Garden café. “I don’t have a clue as to the reason they decided to speak to the union,” she says.
“I’ve been a union supporter all my life,” adds Moore when asked about Just Us!’ stance on unions. “…. In general, I’ve been involved with the NDP and unions all my life. I think they’ve got their place for sure.”
Jason Edwards, labour organizer for SEIU Local 2, was approached by Williams and Enxuga in December about unionizing and has been in regular contact with the employees since then. Edwards, who had always been a supporter of Just Us! and its mandate, says he was shocked to learn that Williams and Enxuga had lost their jobs. “Some employers you’d expect that of them…but with Just Us!, I was incredibly surprised that they were so heavy-handed.”
“I think when the evidence comes out it will be very clear to everybody that Just Us! dismissed employees because they were forming a union,” says Edwards. “That is incredibly illegal.”
Enxuga says they are fighting back. On Friday, SEIU Local 2 filed an Unfair Labour Practice complaint with the Labour Board of Nova Scotia, on behalf of Williams and Enxuga. They’re also planning a rally on April 7 in front of the Spring Garden cafe to protest their dismissal. Williams and Enxuga want their jobs back and for Just Us! to recognize the union.
“[We] basically want [Just Us!] to uphold its mandate of being a social-justice kind of organization,” says Williams. “We want it to uphold what it says it is.”
This article was first published by the Halifax Media Co-op.