Filed under: Action, Labor, Quebec
This essay, about organizing at a popular candy store in Halifax called Freak Lunchbox, was distributed yesterday among local cafés and retail establishments by the K’jipuktuk – Halifax IWW. It was written by former employees of the candy store. Since the publication of this piece, the demand for floor mats has been met.
The “Now Hiring” sign that often graces the front window calls this job “the sweetest gig in town.” Customers say daily, “this must be the best job ever.” But, for years, store owners Erin Schwanz and Jeremy Smith have been using the supposed desirability of working at Freak Lunchbox to shut down workers’ expressions of dissatisfaction. They have justified mistreating employees by insisting that they’re a “small, local businesses” and they’re different from “big chains.” Workers have been expected to smile through sickness, mental health crises, and harassment while saying, “yup, I love working here.” As Jeremy put it, while in the process of firing a long-time employee, “we want people who will show up, be happy, and sell candy.”
As a group of former Freak Lunchbox employees, we want to lay out the realities of working for Jeremy and Erin. Through this process, many of us struggled with feeling like no one would take us seriously because of the store’s public image, and because employees at other jobs “have it worse.” Certainly, many of the bad things about working at Freak Lunchbox happen in other places too. Many bosses provide the bare minimums that they’re legally forced to — if that. Nonetheless, although it is important to publicly name our awful former employers, these issues are also relevant because they are frequently faced by other workers. We think that its vital to highlight examples of workers standing together and standing up.
Health & Safety
Workers have the right to be safe at work, and to have proactive measures put in place that protect our physical and mental health. Erin and Jeremy have shown – as many bosses do – that they care more about their profits than about the health and well-being of those they employ.
In the employee handbook at Freak Lunchbox it is explicitly spelled out (and contrary to labour law) that we are not permitted to call in sick without finding a replacement, and that doing so would mean being fired. The consequence of this policy was that employees often had no choice but to work while ill. In one instance, during the summer of 2016, a worker was so unwell that she was vomiting in the staff bathroom. Despite this, she was not allowed to leave, though she was permitted to stay downstairs.
Another staffer worked through mono, colds, flus, and mental health episodes – including those that resulted from being sexually assaulted by a regular customer. On the November 2017 anniversary of being assaulted, she called in to work. She was informed that while she could come in a few hours late, she still had to come into work regardless.
In support of each other, workers covered or switched shifts when possible, but pervasive understaffing made that difficult – or outright impossible – with workers already being scheduled beyond their availability.
The most serious safety concerns occurred during winter months. When universities and other businesses were closed during storms, Freak Lunchbox stayed open, forcing workers into unsafe working conditions while traveling to and from the store. One employee was told to stay at the Bedford location during a power outage to “wait and see if it would come back on.” The rest of the mall had closed, and employees had been sent home hours prior.
Workers who lived within walking distance of the store would often switch shifts with workers who drove or took transit, showing the concern we had for each other’s safety when our bosses did not.
Starting in winter 2016, staff began requesting either an anti-slip mat or permission to salt the store’s entryway. Customers often complained [about slipperiness], and staff had watched customers fall regularly. Requests for mats were made to the store manager, and in writing via the store’s communications binder.
In winter 2017, staff were told that the mats had been ordered and were coming, but this turned out to be untrue. To this date, staff are still being told that salt would harm the decorative “arcade” stone work, and that a mat would look ugly.
In what has been an almost cartoonish example of stingy capitalist behavior, some of our longest fights with management have been about anti-fatigue mats for behind the cash register. Such mats are standard in many, if not most, retail environments. Staff had been asking for mats, individually, for a few months, and disclosed back and knee pain caused by serving lines of customers while standing at the cash. However, we were told that, since we should be out on the floor interacting with customers, mats were unnecessary.
In June 2017, our first coordinated collective action took place when four workers decided to push together in a staff meeting for the anti-fatigue mats. This action led to the manager agreeing to ask Erin and Jeremy for anti-fatigue mats again, and one mat was purchased later that summer. Several of us noted that this alleviated the pain that we had been experiencing. It served as a heartening example of our ability to win results through collective pressure.
The mat, however, was taken away in October 2018, after some us who had pushed for it had quit or been fired. Jeremy and Erin said that it “looked dirty” and “encouraged standing behind the cash.”
Staffing and Firings
Understaffing at Freak Lunchbox has been an ongoing issue, since Jeremy seems to think, in his words, that we’re “standing around and talking to each other.” In a particularly egregious case, on the afternoon of July 1st 2018 [Canada Day], one of the busiest days of the year, only three staff members were scheduled. For context, this is one less worker than on a typical Saturday. We do not think it is a coincidence that the store was understaffed on a statutory holiday where workers are legally entitled to time-and-a-half pay for their hours worked.
Staffing issues are exacerbated by high turnover, which often makes for a lack of fully trained long-term employees. This isn’t unintentional – in Jeremy’s very own evocative words he claims that they “like fresh blood.” Any sign of dissatisfaction can be cause for firing since, as Erin put it, “it’s a candy store. It’s a happy place. We want people to be happy working here. And if they aren’t happy, we support them on their journey to find other employment.” This type of euphemism is typical. When workers are directly being fired, they insist that workers are being “let go, not fired.”
However, explicit firings, or “letting go”s, are less common. The main mode of punishment that Erin and Jeremy employ is constructive dismissal: Massively cutting employees’ hours to push them out. For example, in January 2017, a long-time employee’s hours were cut to one-third of what they had been prior to her going home for Christmas. Though she had been pressured to work through the holiday instead of visiting her family, she was subsequently told that the cuts were because new people had been hired and were owed hours. However, the timing of the hirings suggest this was simply an excuse.
In response to these recurring situations, those of us who could afford to would give shifts to people whose hours had been cut. This led to management making a rule that all shift changes had to be approved by a manager, and that shifts had to be offered to everyone. We were told that if we kept giving our shifts away to one person, our shifts would be cut too.
Former workers and customers have attested to dealing with racism at the downtown Freak Lunchbox location, and in interactions with the owners. For years, the store featured both an anti-Indigenous “lollipop chief” display and an offensive “Mr. Wong” caricature hand-painted by Jeremy. Staff and customers had asked them to remove the “lollipop chief” display repeatedly, but it was only removed in the summer of 2015 when the store relocated.
In the winter of 2017/2018, staff made complaints about the “Mr. Wong” caricature. In response, the name “Mr. Wong” was painted over, but the caricature itself remained. Realizing that the ownership would not address this issue, employees took matters into their own hands and started covering up the sign with various masks. One customer thanked employees for doing this, saying he and his wife had been “very offended.”
Recently, a former staff member released a photo of the caricature on Twitter, in hopes that public scrutiny would lead to it being taken down. Indeed, the combination of employee action and public pressure did lead to its eventual removal. However, the staff member who had photographed the sign was outed by another coworker, who had not been involved in organizing. He was accused of being responsible for the Twitter post and was fired – on Christmas Eve.
Owners Jeremy and Erin not only installed these racist art pieces but refused to remove them in the face of both workers’ and customers’ protests. Their removals only took place when convenient, in the course of a move, or when the direct action of one worker forced their hand, at the expense of that worker’s job.
Toxic Work Environment
While firing a worker for organizing, Jeremy accused her of creating a “toxic work environment.” We consider this to be ironic given the work we put into creating a positive work environment for each other and countering the toxic work environment that the owners themselves create and maintain.
It is well-known among women employees that Jeremy is creepy and often behaves inappropriately. On one occasion, Jeremy approached an employee and asked her what she found attractive in men. He specifically wanted to know if she “was into guys who wore scarves.” This made the employee uncomfortable and she refused to answer the question. In the most extreme case of predatory behavior, Jeremy, in his forties, dated an employee in her very early twenties who had been hired as a teenager.
As women do to keep each other safe, we warned each other about his habit of hitting on much younger women who work for him. We know that we are not the only women who have to do this in our workplaces, and we know that creepy bosses are par for the course. But we do not accept it.
Jeremy’s inappropriate behavior is not exclusively sexual in nature. In summer 2017, he approached two employees while they were working in the store and requested, they walk his dog. He “joked” that if they didn’t walk his dog, they would be fired. One employee refused and the other obliged.
Beyond Jeremy’s bad behavior, there are intentional interventions aimed to foster division and discord. Jeremy and Erin relentlessly pick favourites, and shit-talk other employees to them. They even had the gall to state, in a public letter to The Coast, that “[an employee had] confessed that the social group she had created at Freak Lunchbox was incredibly tight and they spent many hours together after work. We felt this social group was becoming increasingly unaware of the boundary between their work and social environments.” Being friends with your co-workers isn’t illegal, it should be celebrated and encouraged. But Erin and Jeremy do their best to keep workers from being friends.
When faced with the aforementioned conditions, we started to organise. It began with casual conversations about what could be done to improve our conditions. Other concerns were also raised, including [the lack of] fifteen-minute breaks and a lack of respect from the owners. Eventually, we began to meet formally as a group outside of work hours.
Our first of several larger meetings took place in late July , where we specified concerns, brainstormed solutions, and considered how to best support each other. We weighed the potential benefits and impacts of taking different forms of action, with primary focus being on the protection of our jobs and of our store manager, with whom most of us had a positive relationship with. Throughout meetings, we frequently checked in to ensure that everyone was comfortable speaking and participating. All opinions were respected and recognized, regardless of how widely they were shared. If any worker had a concern, their input was taken very seriously and our plans were adapted accordingly. It was also made clear that individual workers could maintain whatever level of involvement they were most comfortable with.
Through our discussions, we decided to invite the owners to a staff meeting, either one of the regularly scheduled meetings with the store manager, or one specially organized to discuss our concerns. Until about 2015 the owners had regularly attended staff meetings, so along with their near everyday presence in the store, we felt that a meeting was a reasonable and attainable request.
Our written invitation placed significant emphasis on how fortunate we were to work in the environment that the store provided, and we noted our desire to work toward enhancing both customer experience and worker productivity. The tone of our invite was never aggressive or antagonistic. We framed ourselves as workers who desired to improve our workplace based on daily experience and customer feedback. The invitation letter did not outline any specific concerns, or give any indication that workers were unhappy with the environment or ownership. We had hoped that the meeting would give us the opportunity to present more specific concerns, and many of our more contentious and severe issues were left out. We wanted to focus on attainable changes, such as clear and consistent communication from both owners to ensure that staff do not receive conflicting instructions. We also wanted constructive and positive feedback that acknowledged the significant work we put in to go above and beyond typical retail service to create an aesthetically pleasing and customer- friendly environment.
We first held a short meeting with the store manager to propose our idea; we did not want to circumvent the “appropriate channels” or endanger her job by going over her head. Unfortunately, the store manager went to the owners. Subsequently, she began pulling us aside for individual meetings, recommending that we do not go through with our plan. A few of us were pulled aside by the owners to be interrogated/intimidated. Several staff began to feel anxious about the potential repercussions but were assured by the store manager that no one would be let go or reprimanded.
Ten days later one worker was called into a meeting to “clear the air.” In the meeting, Jeremy asked her if she was happy working at Freak Lunchbox. She responded that she loved her co-workers and the customers, though she often experienced anxiety at work because of how easy it seemed to get fired. Jeremy told her that he was “happy that rumour was going around.” He then proceeded to tell her that he and Erin could see she was no longer happy working at Freak Lunchbox and for that reason, it would be best if she found employment elsewhere. Though it was clear that Erin and Jeremy thought the worker was a “ringleader,” they insisted that they had no specific reason for her termination. Shortly thereafter, several workers resigned in a mix of protest, frustration, and anxiety.
Afterward, three of us approached The Coast to publicly share our experiences. The resulting article omitted significant information and did a disservice to the workers by providing ten direct quotes from the owners, compared to two from the employees. Erin and Jeremy followed up further, putting out their own statement on Facebook, in The Coast’s comments section, and as a Letter to the Editor.
Their statement served to not only brush over the legitimate concerns brought up by staff, but accused us of being “ungrateful.” They also publicly demeaned one worker by bringing up out-of-context, unrelated, and dated internal communications. Overall, it was an inaccurate and unprofessional attempt to discredit and undermine the experiences of many of their former workers — ranging from those who have left recently to those who have disclosed similar experiences as far back as 10 years ago. Former employees, in turn, worked with the local IWW branch to release a counter-statement through official IWW channels.
We want to counter the idea that working for a “small business” or at a “desirable” job makes the working conditions better. We learned that bosses will use those things against us when it is convenient for them. We also learned that we only have meaningful power when we stand together. It was only in moments of panic, when our togetherness wavered, that our bosses were able to regain the upper hand.
Jeremy and Erin do not care about their workers, they care deeply about their public image and their profits.
We appreciate everyone who responded to our public statements by saying that they would boycott the store, however, we think that the most meaningful change will come from active pressure to treat workers better.
We encourage anyone who wants to support us to email Erin and Jeremy at [email protected] and [email protected], to tweet at @Freak_Lunchbox, and to leave reviews on their Facebook and Google pages. Please note that the phone is exclusively answered by sales associates who are told to never pass the phone to the owners, so please do not phone the store. We ask you to urge them to immediately meet these demands:
• Replace the anti-fatigue mat.
• Purchase an outdoor anti-slip mat.
• Provide paid 15-minute breaks, as is industry standard.
Although working for small businesses doesn’t always translate into better working conditions, it does mean that you can get to know your coworkers more intimately. This enables workers to build relationships, get an idea of what workplace issues are important, and what you all think can be done about them. We encourage anyone who is having issues at work — or anyone who just thinks that work could be better — to get in touch with the IWW.
Workers know what sucks about our jobs and how they could be improved, we just have to do it together.