Starbucks says union inappropriate for Lethbridge store

The company argued that the Alberta Labour Relations Board was wrong when they said that the Lethbridge store trying to unionize was appropriate for collective bargaining.

Last November, workers at one of the Starbucks locations in Lethbridge held a unionization vote. The results of that vote remain unpublished and workers there have no idea whether they won.

There’s a reason for the 4-month delay.

This unionization drive follows on the heels of workers trying to unionize all 5 Starbucks locations in the city, which failed last summer after the vote resulted in a tie, automatically upholding the status quo.

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According to a decision published last month by the Alberta Labour Relations Board, Starbucks had tried blocking the unionization effort.

Roughly two weeks after Local 1-207 of the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union (also known as United Steelworkers) filed their application for unionization, the ALRB prepared a report that found the application was sufficient.

Specifically, the report claimed that the application was timely, that the bargaining unit was appropriate (although with two minor amendments), and that there was evidence that at least 40% of the workers in the proposed bargaining unit supported the application.

Starbucks disagreed.

They claimed that this specific store (located in West Lethbridge Towne Centre) wasn’t actually appropriate for collective bargaining. Plus, they felt that ALRB should reject the application since the city-wide application earlier that year didn’t result in a win.

An ALRB panel heard objections from Starbucks during 3 hearings in January (on the 5th, 6th, and 16th). Board vice-chair Gordon Nekolaichuk and board members Corinne Galway and Peter Marsden comprised the panel.

During the panel hearings, Starbucks brought in Jason Hayes, a district manager based in Calgary who oversees 11 stores in his district, including the 5 Lethbridge stores; Kate Fenton, the manager of partner resources and labour relations with Starbucks Canada; and Thomas Peeters, the senior operations consultation manager with Starbucks Canada, as witness.

Starbucks put forward two main arguments for why unionization wasn’t appropriate at this location.

First, they claimed that because much of Starbucks operations is centralized—including partner resources, talent acquisition, data management, hiring, an online disciplinary tool, software for leaves of absence and disability management, and investigation teams—it would make it difficult for bargaining at the local level.

Second, Starbucks also argued that because workers often will take shifts at more than one store, having one unionized store would interfere with this practice, which is called “borrowing”.

As well, they proposed that a single-store bargaining unit would be too small and would lack sufficient bargaining power. They were also worried that a single unionized store in Lethbridge would fragment its operations, drain costs and resources, create different sets of rules for the stores, and lead to conflict in the event of a strike or lockout.

The panel ultimately rejected Starbucks’ objections to the report. They said that there was no evidence that Starbucks operates in an industry that’s traditionally difficult to certify. As well, USW is already the bargaining agent for 3 Starbucks stores in Alberta.

Regarding the process of borrowing, the panel considered that the evidence showed the majority of Starbucks work most of their shifts at their home store, the store where they originally were hired.

As well, the panel sees borrowing as being similar to having workers in other sectors coming in from other locations for relief work. On average, fewer than 5% of the hours worked at this specific store were covered by workers whose home stores were elsewhere in Lethbridge, and several weeks saw no borrowing at all.

Even with this ruling, however, the ballots cast last November will continue to be sealed because of another case that’s pending. That same month, The Alberta Worker, published an article regarding Starbucks being accused of firing a Lethbridge worker who had been advocating for unionization.

That worker, Caiden Cline, was excluded from the list of eligible voters that Starbucks had made available. USW argued that the only reason why Cline was excluded was because of unionbusting that Starbucks had allegedly engaged in. Had he not been unfairly let go, he could’ve voted in the election.

ALRB will be meeting later today on this case. Until they have issued a decision regarding it, the ballots in the union certification vote will remain sealed.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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