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Justice at Just Us!: Co-operatives, unions and labour rights

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On March 27 of this year, two workers were fired from a local Halifax café. They were actively trying to organize a union in their workplace. Their café is part of a larger co-operative in Nova Scotia called Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op.

The Just Us co-operative was started in 1995 as worker-run coffee roaster by a small group of people inspired by Latin American social justice movements. The co-op wanted to have direct trade with producers, a sustainable business and create good jobs for all those involved. The core principles of the co-op are democracy, environmental responsibility, transparency and accountability. The slogan, ‘people and the planet before profits,' is even emblazoned across its website and shops.

Just Us has expanded from a single-coffee roaster to a much larger enterprise encompassing four (soon to be five) cafés, a big roastery and a healthy retail trade in coffee and chocolate across the Maritimes and beyond. There are roughly 75 people involved in Just Us, but only 14 of them are part of the co-op. Workers can join the co-op only after working for two years, putting up $2,000 and being approved by the existing co-op members. In effect, Just Us has a tiered workplace; some people are members of the co-op, others are part of the management structure and the rest -- the majority -- are simply workers. 

I think it is fair to say that the workers and customers of Just Us are attracted to its social justice mandate. The ethical core of the company makes it a desirable place for those seeking to support alternatives to the normal top-down amoral type of business. The caveat here is that while co-ops can indeed be a vast improvement over other business arrangements they are themselves not free from the broader economic dynamics that colour the world of work.

Co-ops are still subjected to the competitive forces of the market -- this means that they must drive their employees, and even their members, to be the most efficient, to convert their time into energy. For example, as several past employees have explained to me, the labour budget at the Just Us co-operative is continually held over the heads of its workers, forcing them to work harder as the resources of the enterprise are focused on expansion rather than staffing. 

This capitalist logic is in direct contradiction to putting the needs of people and workers ahead of growth and profit. Co-ops, especially ones in which members are a minority of the enterprise, are not free from exploitative (or self-exploitative) working conditions. The needs of the enterprise and the needs of the workers and members are not the same.

In the case of Just Us, what is known is that two workers were let go from their jobs. They were ardent supporters of unionization in their workplace and active in an organizing drive with the Service Employees Union Local 2. They wanted to see an improvement in working conditions and better job security. Just Us is one of the better cafés to work for in Halifax, though that does not mean its workers are without need of a union. There are plenty of issues that low-wage café workers have at Just Us, not least of which is job security. This, according to several past employees I spoke to, is not the first time Just Us has drummed out union supporters amongst its café staff.

A union of café workers would be a positive step for all workers in the low-wage service sector in the city. The largely young workforce occupying this precarious sector of the economy has been notoriously difficult to organize. A successful union drive could help spark other café and food service workers into asserting their labour rights.  

Workers want to fulfill the values of the co-op by making sure all workers in the Just Us chain are treated with dignity and assured their rights. The company claims that the workers and the company parted ways mutually and that they weren’t fired. Just Us also posted on Twitter and Facebook that it supports the principles of unionization. The workers tell a different story: they were taken into the basement of their café one morning and told they were being let go with a severance package. They also received a Record Of Employment stating they were dismissed. 

None of this is surprising in the context of a union drive. Employers are by and large hostile to workers asserting their collective rights to organize. This is true of progressive workplaces just as much as in large corporations. Co-ops are a step in the right direction in creating democracy at work; however, within the confines of the capitalistic economic system there will always be a need for workers to unionize, to fight for their rights and dignity.

How you can support these workers:

1. Write an email to Just Us at info@justuscoffee.com and tell them to re-instate the workers and recognize their union. You can also Tweet @JustUsCoffee

2. Share this article from the Halifax Media Coop and post a message of solidarity in the comment section: http://halifax.mediacoop.ca/story/just-us-and-them/16963

3. Help promote a rally Sunday, April 7th at 2:00 pm on front of Just Us! on Spring Garden Road in Halifax. More details: https://www.facebook.com/events/502393643158642/

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