Betting Dollars to Donuts

According to Sarah Inglis, a young woman now working for the Hospital Employees Restaurant Employees (H.E.R.E.) union, McDonald's shut that (Quebec) store down the day it organized.

High Grader magazine
March 1, 1999

Betting Dollars to Donuts
Country Style Donuts Goes Union in Espanola
Jim Moodie

As any Canadian can tell you, it takes a dozen donuts to fill a box. To fill a ballot box with enough votes to form a union it takes just nine ‘donut slingers’. The Country Style Donuts in Espanola is located right in the centre of town, a stone's throw from the massive E.B. Eddy mill, and midway between the two Tim Horton's that guard the town limits. None of the donut stores seem to suffer for business people in Espanola (population 5,500) like their coffee and donuts.

But that doesn't mean life is a bowl of cherry fritters for the people who work there. Inside the Country Style, which I visited a few days after the vote, there's a framed message from the company tacked to the wall, urging anyone with a concern to dial a toll-free number. "If at any time we don't meet your expectations, we want to know about it," the poster encourages. One employee drew my attention to this statement, and promptly rolled her eyes. "Now that," she said, "is a joke."

This woman knows the poster is there primarily for customer feedback, but said that when she first joined the Country Style staff, she was told that the phone number was for workers as well. She had no reason to complain about anything at that time the franchise itself had just opened, and she was happy to have a job but as time went on, she and her fellow employees became frustrated by the unfair treatment they felt they were receiving from franchise owner, Kyle Hoddy. So she dialed the number. "I was told that Kyle is the one who hires me or fires me, and that I had to deal with him," she related. Knowing from previous efforts that appealing to the boss wouldn't do much to improve things, her next move was to contact the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Again, she got nowhere the owner's actions might very well be unfair, but they weren't illegal, she was informed. "So at that point, we really had no other choice," she said.
On February 2, nine of the 11 employees at the Espanola Country Style cast a ballot in favour of joining the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (C.E.P.) union, which represents about 150,000 workers across the country. The vote took place in the back of the store, after the owner was given the requisite five-day notice. The workers might not have fully known it at the time, but they were making history: no Country Style had been organized before. Word of the vote results hit the streets quickly. In some ways, the news was not all that surprising Espanola is a big union town. Fred Bond, president of C.E.P. local 31-X, estimates that over half the town's employees are carrying union cards. CEP represents workers at the E.B. Eddy mill, the local Canadian Tire store and the Espanola District Credit Union. Other unions represent the teachers, health care workers and grocery store employees. But in another way there was something truly fresh about the fact that a donut store would join the ranks. For the record: donut stores have been unionized before. Vic Morden, C.E.P. national representative, noted that a Tim Horton's in Windsor is, at this moment, represented by the Canadian Auto Workers. But that doesn't mean that organizing such workplaces has ever been a simple proposition. Morden points to a Tim Horton's in New Brunswick that got a union in and the company just went and tore the place down.

The same thing happened in Quebec with a McDonald's restaurant. According to Sarah Inglis, a young woman now working for the Hospital Employees Restaurant Employees (H.E.R.E.) union, McDonald's shut that (Quebec) store down the day it organized.

Inglis had her own battle with the burger giant five years ago when, as a 17-year-old, she signed up 67 out of 102 fellow employees at the Orangeville McDonald's where she worked. Under the legislation of the day, this met the 55% majority required for automatic certification. But McDonald's brought it to a hearing and dragged it out for four months.

She claims that employees were intimidated and were made to testify in front of their employer.
By the time a vote was finally called, the union was done like an overcooked happy meal. Country Style may not be as big as McDonald's, or even Tim Horton's, but neither is it exactly small carbohydrates in the franchise world. Owned by Maple Leaf Foods, the 37-year-old chain started by a McCain brother now operates more than 300 stores nationwide. It also has outlets overseas, among them a recent one which opened in Malta. Still, as of mid-February, no formal appeal had been lodged with the Labour Relations Board; barring some surprise development, certification will have been officially granted to the Espanola employees by the time people read this over their morning double double.

Franchise owner Hoddy might even stand to gain from having a unionized staff in such a pro-union place as Espanola. Following the vote, he admitted that business had not declined at all. If anything, it has been busier.

This is not to say that Hoddy has been entirely pleased with the way the union has come about. He wasn't happy, for instance, that two of the 11 employees who were eligible to vote for the union subsequently quit (he's since hired another, to bring the complement to 10). While he acknowledged that the ballot still would have come out in favour of the union without them, he doesn't believe they should have been on the voter's list, as they'd already given notice prior to the vote. As well, he questioned the eligibility of some of his part-time workers to vote.

C.E.P. local president Bond said, however, that Hoddy's concerns are unfounded according to labour legislation, any part-time employee can legitimately become part of the bargaining unit, and the employees who quit were still scheduled to work at the time of the vote.

As well, Bond said, the owner missed the chance to register his complaints. The time to file a dispute is prior to a certification vote; Hoddy waited to see how the vote would go first, according to Bond. Then he started complaining, and claiming ignorance of the process.

But Hoddy was mystified that his workers would even seek union status in the first place; he feels the concerns could have been solved without one.

"They wanted me to follow the seniority list and rotate weekends off," is how he summarized their position.

Granting more weekends off could be easily accomplished by simply hiring more people, he argued, something he would gladly do if his employees would agree to it. "I had a slew of people when we opened, but that number got lower and lower, because everyone wanted the hours. Well, not everyone can work 9 to 5 (through the week)," he said.

Employees tell a different story. "It's not just about seniority and weekends off it's about fairness," explained the woman who scoffed at the poster. She maintains that the franchise owner shows favouritism to certain employees, and penalizes others who do go so far as to ask for the occasional weekend off.
"I usually work weekend day shifts, but he always makes me feel guilty if I ask for a weekend off," she said.

The employees worked out a schedule on their own to rotate weekend shifts, one that everyone agreed to. But the owner promptly changed it, she said. Another worker I spoke to, whose eyes were red with fatigue, said she'd worked 12 weekends in a row. She said she's encouraged Hoddy to hire a couple of students to share the weekend load, but that it never happened.

"My weekends are shot I can't do anything with my kids," she said. The one time she did secure a weekend off, it came with a price she was given a whole week off, which she believes was a kind of punishment. To her, joining the union wasn't about getting better wages. "If you work here, you can't expect to make $20 an hour we just want some stability, and for our employer to be basically fair with the staff," she explained.

Still, the low wages adds to the discontent. Most of the employees at the Espanola store are in their late 20s or 30s, and many have families to support. This isn't an after-school job for them. "I'd rather be with my kids than be here," said the red-eyed worker. She wants the flexibility to at least work when her husband isn't working, so he can take care of the home front. "I still have a young son at home; I'm not going to pay a sitter so that I can make $6.85 an hour," she said.

Inglis said she can appreciate this bind. "I was in a Country Style in Toronto, and this woman who was working actually had a toddler there with her." In her view, workers in the service industry (the sector now creating more jobs than any other) deserve better. "You have companies walking away with billions in profits it's not like they can't pay."

C.E.P national rep Morden feels the Espanola store, with its mature workforce, is indicative of the times. At one time, these service-sector jobs were part-time, transient positions for a lot of people they're now becoming career-like, full-time jobs. This is not to say that the Country Style workers aren't looking for something better they are. Problem is, they just don't have many options.

All you have to do is take a spin down Espanola's main drag. Five years ago the mill was everything to Espanola, while Kentucky Fried Chicken was the only fast-food franchise to be found.

Since then the community has come to sport a Country Style, two Tim Horton's, a McDonald's, a Wendy's, a Subway, a Pizza Hut, a new grocery store and a Giant Tiger department store. During the same time, the mill, hospital and local Ministry of Natural Resources office have downsized. Jobs provided through the retail and service sectors now equal the number offered by the mill.

Hoddy thinks that layoffs at traditional workplaces have made unions like C.E.P. desperate for new members elsewhere. "Ten years ago they wouldn't have even looked at nine coffee pourers," he opined.
But ten years ago, coffee pourers' simply did not exist in such force in Espanola. Maybe people are just starting to wake up and smell the coffee.

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