Organizing lessons from Tim Hortons workers: 'Don't be afraid'

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A Tim Hortons in Cochrane, Ontario. Image: Jerry Huddleston/Flickr

About 45 Tim Hortons workers in Fort Frances, Ontario, banded together to form a union this past year, joining the United Food and Commercial Workers, one of Canada's largest private sector unions.

The outlet is the only Tim Hortons in the small northern Ontario town of about 8,000 people. 

"Job security was the number one factor why they decided to join UFCW," said Nathalie Vengal, an organizer with the union.

Workers bargained annual wage increases, three days paid bereavement leave as well as seniority rights for scheduling and vacation time. Moreover, both full-time and part-time staff will be entitled to benefits.

Vengal said that prior to unionization, access to benefits was restricted without a clear explanation of eligibility. The collective agreement language removed that ambiguity.

Cross-generational allyship

Many of the workers at the outlet are close to retirement age and sought job security and benefits. 

Vengal said that the older employees found allyship among the younger cohort -- many of them high school and college students -- who wanted to fight for their older counterparts. 

"For [the younger workers] it's a part-time job," she said. "But they cared so much about more senior workers and they said, 'You know, I want to do it for them.'"

"[It shows] working together brings a lot of momentum, it brings a lot of strength, to stand together and bargain," Vengal said. "That's what the whole labour movement should be about, right? Allyship and solidarity."

A quick resolution

The process from the start of the organizing campaign to the certification of the union spanned about a month. Vengal said the employer, a franchisee, was eager to reach a deal. 

Some Ontario Tim Hortons locations drew widespread criticism in 2018 after they cut paid breaks and benefits for workers after the minimum wage went up in January 2018. 

But Vengal said this particular franchisee cared about the workers and had built a relationship with his staff. 

"A lot of the workers have worked for the employer for a long time," she said. "And they have a relationship. And I think he understood the importance of giving workers a voice in their working conditions." 

Fighting against discrimination

The workplace is very diverse, according to Vengal, and the employees were adamant about entrenching anti-discrimination and anti-harassment language in the contract.

"We wanted to make sure that there was no discrimination based on age, ethnic group, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other intersectionality of identity," she said. 

The younger workers in particular wanted to secure such language, and they keenly participated in the bargaining process.

Lessons for other workplaces

Vengal said that in today's climate, "workers now more than ever need to stand together and secure the working conditions through organizing and collective bargaining."

The big lesson is not to be afraid of organizing, she said.

"Organizing is an empowering process for workers -- to take a stand and have a say in their working conditions."

Editor's note, October 8, 2019: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that UFCW is Canada's largest private sector union.

Zaid Noorsumar is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2019, and is a journalist who has previously contributed to CBC, The Canadian Press, the Toronto Star and Rankandfile.ca. To contact Zaid with story leads, email zaid[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Jerry Huddleston/Flickr

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