You Can’t Hide From Class Struggle: The Campaign at Smiling Bear Café

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Gaby recounts the story of an organizing campaign at a café in Montréal, where baristas successfully negotiated a raise and benefits. Workers initially avoided identifying as a union, and framed themselves as trying to improve how the café was run, but eventually found they had to engage in direct confrontation with the boss to be successful. Interview by Marianne Garneau.

Tell me about how you started working at Smiling Bear Café. What was the job? How many workers were there? What were conditions like? 

I started working there because I needed a job as a barista, and my friend was already working there.

There were eighteen of us between two stores. We were all close – we were friends and would hire each others’ friends.

When I came to the café, the main problem was that the owner had opened a second location and then disappeared. He basically had a mental breakdown and left the staff to run the two cafés. There was one person from each café being paid more to do inventory and scheduling, but they were not managers. Tom was basically running the other café. Customers thought he was the owner, but he was just a barista.

The café was just really disorganized. And people cared about the café, and we were upset it wasn’t operating as well as it should. We had different quality coffee all the time. The cashing in and out was always off because Jason had this really convoluted way of dealing with cash-out. There were a lot of small things that could have been fixed if he had just listened to us.

We didn’t have a training procedure, and that was really hard on the older staff because we were constantly having people come in, and there was no procedure for training them, so it was just on the older employees to teach younger employees, without any extra pay.

We were all getting paid minimum wage. One of our grinders would shock people. You had to grind coffee fifteen times a day and you would get this terrible shock.

We didn’t have any sick days or benefits. Jason would always talk about how we didn’t have any money, but there was a line out the door. It was like the busiest café in Montréal.

How did the campaign start?

Everyone had started complaining at work all day. I went to an IWW Organizer Training 101 in the fall of 2017, and I was like, “Oh shit, we could just use this structure at Smiling Bear, and everyone is really angry, so it would happen really quickly.”

I met with two of my coworkers after work, and talked to them about it. I ran through my notes and I was like, “Look, guys, we can do this.”

I assigned them the job of talking to two more people each, to just talk about the problems we had at work.

Our first big meeting was ten to twelve people. It was framed very much in the context of: “We love Jason and he’s a good person, but he’s overwhelmed by the opening of a second store.”

We just wanted to organize to offer Jason “help” – that’s how we framed it. That’s something I would do differently.

The union covered both stores?

Yes.

After that first meeting, we went to the IWW and said we wanted to organize our shop.

The problem was, we organized very independently. We didn’t identify with the IWW in meetings. We had two IWW members coming to meetings, but we told people they were there to help, not that we were an IWW campaign, because there was a decent amount of fear around unionizing. So we just pretended they were consultants.

What kinds of issues did you take on?

We kept it very open. We had everyone come, and say what they cared about. People felt it was very disorganized in the café. We wanted better systems for cash in and cash out, clock in and clock out, inventory, scheduling, training. When we clocked in and out, we would put it on a piece of paper, just the back of a receipt, and we would trust that Jason would keep track of that. But that was our rent! People would get paid wrong sometimes, or get someone else’s pay.

People also really wanted health care and sick days. In Canada, you can go into a walk-in clinic, but you get extended health care benefits from your job, like dental and prescription coverage, chiropractors, physiotherapy – which was a big thing for older baristas, because you would get tendinitis or problems with your shoulder… One of the big rallying points was Jennifer, who had been with the café since its opening, her shoulder was really injured, basically from the job, from 5 or 6 years of tamping espresso at a counter that is too high for her. Our counters were too high. Good cafes have low counters because you are supposed to be tamping with your body, not your arm.

Jason helped her sign up for disability, but she had a horrible conversation with Yvan, the other owner, and he made her cry. And he yelled at her, “My shoulder hurts too!” That became a joke on the floor, because it was such a ridiculous thing for him to say to her.

She was the oldest employee there and she was treated like absolute shit. That was helpful in breaking the façade of Jason and Yvan really caring about their employees, which had been our biggest obstacle in getting people on board.

How did you organize?

We had weekly meetings, where I kind of ran through the Organizer Training 101 with everyone in four hours – we would run the actionable stuff without going into the legal stuff, focusing heavily on inoculation.

The main problem we were running into was that people had friendships with Jason. In the beginning, Jason had been very involved with the café and had said “We are a family!” So we spent a lot of time inoculating people. And kind of really radicalized everyone. Because it’s the service industry, and everyone there had worked many service jobs before, everyone had been waiting for someone to say, “Your boss doesn’t care about you. Look at what happened to Jennifer.” It eventually wasn’t hard to get people to the point where they felt a lot more alliance or camaraderie with their coworkers than with Jason or Yvan.

We had a lot of working groups. We made sure everyone walked away with a task. We had people looking into other cafés in the city that had health care and benefits; after people surveyed a bunch of cafés, we found most baristas were getting hired at $14 or $15; we were making min wage at $12.

At this point we had about six core people who were meeting up regularly. There were about ten who would show up to a meeting if reminded, but weren’t as invested, and probably two who were ambivalent.

Some people took the lead with creating this manifesto of everything we wanted. Max told me there was no point in creating that 10-page document; your boss is never going to read it. It was literally like a restructuring of the café. It was this whole long document, and I think it came from the fact that Tom was running the other café.

How did negotiations come about?

We didn’t do as much direct action as other campaigns.

The first time Jason became aware we had been organizing was when six of us met with him, and told him a lot of things needed to change. We said “we need to set up a series of meetings with you to come up with solutions.” We didn’t mention pay, we just said “conditions” and “issues.” He asked if it was about pay, and we said, “Pay is a part of it, but we’re not going to talk about that now.”

We were quite forceful: we said, “You have a couple of days to get back to us about meeting.” There was definitely an underlying threat.

He almost started crying.

People felt empowered by the fact that he took us seriously. I think people hadn’t realized how upset they were about conditions until they said it to Jason’s face. It was like finally attaching everything we’d been talking about in a classroom at McGill to a man who had control over these things.

What was the response to your demand for negotiations?

Jason was very upset after that, and he cornered three or four staff and brought them down to the storage room, so it was literally underground — it became a joke in the campaign: “Under no circumstances are you to go down to the storage room.” He broke down crying, and was like, “I thought we were a family. You betrayed me.” It was all about how we’d been speaking behind his back. It was very emotional. My coworkers were crying too.

People left that meeting shaken, but because he had also not conceded anything, people were also like, “Did you hear me?”

We had told Jason to email June and Julien – each worked at a different location — about our request to meet. Then Jason fired Julien. And that was something we didn’t register. Julien had approached Jason and said, “I got another job, so I need to reduce my hours at the café,” and Jason said, “I accept your resignation.” The schedule was already up and Jason wiped off Julien’s shifts. It took us like a month to realize that Julien was fired for unionizing.

So after that, the email came from someone different every time. Having new hires send those emails was one of the best things we ever did, because it would fuck with Jason’s mind. This new girl sent an email, and she had been working there two weeks. Jason was like, “How does she know??”

How did you get new people on board?

Within 48 hours of them having a first shift, we would speak to them. Mostly me and Tom. We would tell them, “We are collectively organized here and we are having negotiations.” I don’t know if it was luck of the draw, but people were pretty game. Maybe it is the service industry in Montréal. People were coming from a job that also sucked. People were like, “That makes total sense. Let me know if you need me to do anything.”

We didn’t frame it as union, or as the IWW.

So how did you get to the negotiating table?

We told Jason we needed to have a meeting above ground: we weren’t going to get anything done in a storage room. Yvan was the silent partner, the money behind the cafés. We set up a meeting at a real office space, with water and snacks. They said we could bring two people; we told them we were bringing three. They said it was unfair, when there were only two of them, for us to bring three people.

We sent them a part of our document, and said, “This is what we want to talk about.”

Jason and Yvan said, “Actually, this is what we are going to talk about,” and they sent us a code of conduct, and I cannot stress enough how insane that document was. “Be a team player. Don’t be mean. Don’t be sarcastic.” Pretty nonsensical.

Jason had changed the march on the boss to being about a better company policy.

But in fairness you guys had framed it that way too.

Yes. But their company policy was very vague and had nothing to do with the running of the café. I think that was actually useful because we had sent a document with clearly defined employee positions, etc. So people found it funny.

We went into negotiations. Me, June and Sebastien went in with a plan to refuse to talk about their code of conduct, and instead talk about what we wanted. Yvan spent a lot of time talking about his personal history. When they brought up their code of conduct, we said, “We’re going to talk about our document instead.” We were trying to figure out a hierarchy of responsibility for employees, and we didn’t go into pay at all.

They would listen to us and not say yes or no.

Yvan was upset about how disorganized the café was, so we tried to appeal to that, and he would come back with restructuring plans. It was just taking a very long time.

Do you regret that? Framing it as running the café better?

Some days I regret it, and some days I don’t. It created an in for people who would have felt it was too controversial or conflictual to come right out and say, “We need to be paid more.” Later, people did get to the point where they were like, “We need to be paid better.” But I think it was helpful for them to watch how Jason and Yvan didn’t give us what we wanted.

But you’re right, some days I do think that it was very lucky that it worked. I wouldn’t prescribe that as something that should be done. Because you’re right that talking about it from that framework meant we were at risk of losing the handle on the conversation.

Tell me more about negotiations. A lot of IWW campaigns get to the point of formal negotiations, but you guys actually got a favorable outcome.

We set these deadlines: “This negotiation is going to be about conditions, the next one about pay, then structure…” We expected them to be done in June. We had a schedule we would keep to.

We eventually realized that, before we went in, we needed to assign a demand to a person, have them say what the demand was, then basically walk out. Because otherwise the conversation was just going to derail. We got better.

We reached a stalemate when it came to the hierarchy [of employee roles], but we still weren’t talking about pay. Jason and Yvan kept refusing to talk about different levels, because they didn’t know what we were going to ask for in terms of pay. And at the end of the day, we realized that we didn’t even want a hierarchical structure. We just wanted everyone to be paid well. So the bosses and us came to the conclusion that we just needed to talk about pay.

It’s funny, because you were both trying to dance around it.

Exactly. We also quickly realized that Jason wasn’t willing to give up control. Even though baristas had been running the business, Jason refused to give up control over that. So we were like, “Fine, take that back over, we just want a pay raise.”

That’s when everyone who had come in with the idea that we just want to be nice – when we got to the pay discussions, that’s when everyone saw how much Jason and Yvan weren’t on our side.

Their first proposal was $12.50. Baristas usually make $14 or 15 in Montréal. They just wouldn’t budge. Yvan got really nasty after that, saying, “Why would I pay someone $14 when they are worth $12? You don’t deserve more than $12.” He would tell us about how he had busted a union at a call center.

How did you decide who sat in on negotiations?

We tried to change every time. I went every time, because people wanted me to, and I was too worried to not go. We would pick people who were invested. But if they were a 3 [on a rating scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is most supportive of the union effort] before they went in, after a meeting they would be a 1. So it was very much in our interest to get people into negotiation meetings.

The thing is, they were never going to concede anything in a negotiation meeting anyways. There was no real risk with sending new people in to negotiations, because there was nothing they could really say to derail those meetings.

“They were never going to concede anything in a negotiation anyways.” Elaborate.

They must have had a strategy of their own, because there was no moment where they said “yes” in a negotiation meeting. They would say “We’ll review it, we’ll get back to you.” Which I think is just good practice, fine. But it was dragging on and people were getting frustrated.

So we did take a few actions in the store. One time we all wore IWW pins, and Jason came into the shop and started screaming at everyone that he couldn’t have communists working in his shop. Which was funny, but then Tom called me, and he flipped out at me that Jason was too mad and now he wouldn’t give us what we want. That was a dark point because he was the social leader in the other café, and he didn’t like Jason’s outburst, because it was embarrassing for him to have been yelled at in front of customers. Tom had a relationship with Jason where he saw them as equals. So that was not great.

Another thing I regret is, we should have had longer debriefs. The people who were in the negotiation meetings would know what was happening, and we would do our best to relay it to the group, but it was difficult to get across how much negotiations had come to a standstill. So we shouldn’t have been telling people “It’s going ok.” Because when Jason freaked out, people said, “Oh! I thought negotiations were going fine!”

So then we came back to them with $14, they said no, and when we had what was supposed to be our last negotiation meeting, we were still at a standstill about wages. They offered us $13, with sick days – they had actually conceded sick days very early on, in the second negotiation meeting, because Jason had just been in the hospital for a week, and Sebastien asked, “Did you get paid when in the hospital?” and Jason said yes, and Yvan said, “We can’t afford sick days,” and Jason said, “Actually, we can.”

Wow. It’s rare that a moral argument works.

Yeah. So we walked into last negotiation meeting, at this point people had done some other actions, like wearing all same color shirt —

So they were symbolic actions, not actually messing with workflow

Correct.

But if Jason was never there, how did he see your pins or shirts?

Once negotiations stared, he would come in the café a lot. He would work there, not so much making coffees, but he would bring his laptop. He was very much a presence, and a bad presence. He was angry and emotional.

He would try to corner people. We developed a buddy system. There were always two people working. A lot of us had taken to hanging out when not working. We made sure no one was ever alone with Jason. If he started talking to someone, we would say, “We need her back on the floor,” or we would just stand there. It was extremely awkward, but I’m proud we did that.

The actions we took were more things like that. It was people taking care of each other. I don’t think we could have done that better. People took charge of making sure their coworkers were ok.

What happened next in negotiations? How did you eventually win?

So, there’s only so long you can have adversarial relations with your boss before it wears down on people. And Jason being upset all the time was just a bad feeling. Jason was punishing people like never before. It was hostile. So by the last negotiation meeting, we were burned out. And people had left, because that’s the nature of service work. We were scared and didn’t feel like we had the upper hand.

They offered us $13, with sick days, and we said yes in the meeting. We shouldn’t have done. We said yes and they grinned, and laughed a little bit.

That’s when we realized we had totally fucked up. We were like, “Oh shit.” Thank god for Max, he said, “You haven’t taken this to a vote. This isn’t binding. You didn’t check with the team.” So we took back our acceptance of the offer.

So we called an emergency meeting, we got everyone there, we Skyped them in if necessary. We also met with everyone one-on-one within 24 hours to tell them the offer, and say, “This isn’t what we want. We wanted retroactive raises, which meant everyone in the café would be making $15.” Everyone was down with that. Then we had the big meeting. We went through the demands, and voted on them.

And then we voted on a strike mandate, which was to open an hour late. And we had 100% yes on that, except for one dude who was anti-union. He was 19 and from Venezuela, and was like, “I don’t like unions because they’re dangerous.” And we were like, “We’re not going to change his lifetime of experience in twenty minutes.” We got him to agree to stay out of the way. He agreed to not pick up his phone if Jason called him to open the café.

We had Jennifer send the strike email with all the demands, and he emailed us back being like, “I thought we agreed on this,” and we replied, “You have until midnight tonight.”

At 11:45 they emailed back agreeing to everything.

It’s amazing how that just works. Demand, deadline, threat of action.

Yeah.

Did you tell them your plans?

We said we had a strike mandate.

That’s a technical term, and I know there are laws surrounding this in Canada. Had you had an election? Had you taken out union cards? Did you vote?

We did not have an election.

We had a good number of union cards. Me and Tom became IWW members in January or February 2018, when we first met with the IWW. Around the march on the boss, in March, four or five people signed up. Then we had another four people sign up during the strike vote.

We voted on all the important things, in meetings.

What happened after negotiations?

After that strike vote, there was this incredible email from Jason, where he said, “We agree to your demands. There will be no more meetings.” We almost got that tattooed: “There will be no more meetings.” Like, we didn’t want any more meetings either. We thought, “You have no idea how many meetings we’ve had.” We were meeting three times a week. But anyway, clearly he thought, “Good, the union is shut down.”

We had this weird break where everything was really quiet for a week. And then we got our pay stubs. The raise was there, but none of the retroactive raises had been applied. So we were like, “Fuck.”

So someone sent a mass email to Jason and to everyone, being like, “The wages are incorrect,” and listing everyone it was incorrect for.

He didn’t respond to that. He sent a separate email saying any issues with pay are to be discussed with him individually.

So I emailed him and asked for a meeting. Six of us came. He was furious. He kept calling us evil. I was so done at this point, and it was my last shift the next day. I had printed our offer that he had agreed to. I said, “Jason, we’re not here to talk about anything else. You agreed to these demands. This one is not being followed.” He said, “I didn’t read the whole email. I wouldn’t have agreed to that.”

I said, “Not our problem. You agreed to it. We’re enforcing it.” And we got our retroactive raises. But he really did try not to give them to us.

Is there a union presence today?

Yes, there is a union presence.

A lot of people quit immediately after this because the environment had gotten so bad. But we got a couple of IWW people hired, so that was good. And we communicated everything to the new people.

If you know how to deal with the turnover in the service sector, please god tell me. You basically have to have someone just dedicated to indoctrination of new members.

You sent me some campaign notes, where you mentioned that you thought you were hiding the fact that you were a union from the boss, but you later found out that the boss knew it all along.

Yeah, really it was obvious that we were organized. We were sending every email from a different person, we weren’t letting anyone meet with them alone, we always said “we.” But to get them into the negotiation room, it was helpful that they didn’t feel threatened by a union, because I don’t think we had the strength at that time to force them to negotiate.

Do you think that they would have entered into negotiations with you if had you filed for, and won, an election?

No. We wouldn’t have gotten to the table. I can say that pretty surely.

Anyway, them agreeing to our demands over email was as binding as a contract.

You made a campaign document for new hires.

I made a document for the new hires who were carrying on the campaign. They had a meeting with Jason in the fall, and they told us, “He cried in the meeting!” Jason’s tactics were working on them, and they were making the same mistakes we had made.

This is why campaigns need to keep a history, and a working best practices document.

What advice do you have for other workers who are organizing?

In the service industry, you rely on your coworkers a lot. When you organize, you have to rely on them even more. Building trust with all of my coworkers, and buildings those relationships, is what got us through what could have been major stalls in the campaign.

Inoculation is also important. We did so many of these sessions, maybe once a week for a month and a half. We would fill in a whiteboard: what do you think Jason’s or Yvan’s reaction might be to this, or this, or this? What would you say to this? What could you imagine happening if this happens? We heard things we did not expect. Inoculation was all the more important because we didn’t have the backing of a major union; it was us doing it.

I also think the IWW can be slow to pick up members. We should push membership more. I think membership creates commitment.

When it comes to negotiating with bosses, you can kind of just ask for whatever you want. If that’s what you want, just say it. Don’t back down, and don’t worry about legalities. Jason said that he was legally allowed to have one-on-one meetings with this staff. Which was probably true. But it doesn’t really matter. And Jason’s not going to call the labor board or something.

What was missing was that we didn’t develop a structure. I would have developed a formal structure for our union, with a secretary and treasurer. We need a structure to keep institutional knowledge.

wrote about this, because I think it’s hard for people to imagine what a grown-up solidarity union looks like.

Yeah, totally.

You guys held all these negotiation sessions, but in the end you won as soon as you threatened a strike.

People always ask me why we didn’t do more direct action. But we did do some. There was a time when we wouldn’t do inventory if it was missing and Jason wasn’t doing his job. Like, we wouldn’t cover for him anymore.

But I think that, in a place that small, sabotaging the workflow — those types of actions would actually just hurt your coworkers. If we refused to serve lattés, which is something we were thinking of doing for a while, it would have been Tom and whoever was working, who would have borne the brunt of that, with the customers.

I’m in touch with another campaign at a small restaurant. The owner pays a few of the workers a shift premium to do all of the scheduling and inventory, even though they’re not managers. How do you take action against a boss when they’re not there? This is a very 2019 problem, the bossless workplace.

Yeah, we didn’t necessarily need to flex how in control we were of the work, because they were so aware that the café couldn’t run if we weren’t there. In the fall, someone was sick, and everyone refused to take their shift. Yvan opened the café, and he was serving raw scones to everyone. Like, they have no idea how to run their own café.

Well that’s your leverage right there. And opening an hour late, that’s an effective tactic…

Or close for the one hour that’s the busiest. That’s what I would tell the restaurant workers to do. Our first hour was the busiest, because it was the morning rush. They could close the doors right at dinner.


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