How a socially progressive fair trade coffee company forgot its roots – and a union helped make it right???
The words did not compute. Not for Debra Moore.
It was April 2, 2013, and Moore was in her office at the headquarters of the Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op in Grand Pré, Nova Scotia. She was sifting through the inevitable shuffles and shifts to come after the co-op board’s most recent better-manage-the-business decision: transitioning from a top-down, general manager, administrative hierarchy to a flatter, team-leader structure. She was in the middle of figuring how all that would play out at the co-op’s four Nova Scotia cafés, coffee roasting facility and wholesale operation when she heard about a story that had just been posted by the Halifax Media Co-op. The small progressive web site was reporting that two former employees at Just Us!’s Spring Garden Road café in Halifax had filed unfair labour practices complaints with the Nova Scotia Labour Relations Board, alleging they’d been fired for trying to organize a union.
Unfair labour practices? Fired for starting a union!
Two days earlier, there had been what Moore would refer to at the time as “a parting of ways” between the employees and the café. “They weren’t happy and we weren’t happy, and we just parted ways.” Such things happened; Just Us! had even given the two severance packages. How could any of that add up to unfair labour practices?
Moore picked up the phone and called the labour board. But the woman there wouldn’t tell Moore much. Instead, she began asking personal questions about the former employees. Moore told the woman she couldn’t talk about their situation because personnel issues were confidential, and what was this really all about anyway? The labour board official wouldn’t elaborate. They were at an impasse.
The call ended and Moore hurried upstairs to tell the co-op’s board chair what had happened. “And then we called the lawyer.”
What had happened, or at least what was alleged, became clear after Moore read the complete Halifax Media Co-op report. It turned out the two fired workers had been involved in a three-month campaign to organize workers at the café on behalf of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “We were just at the end of tying up all the information” to apply for certification, one of them explained, “and then we got dismissed.”
Moore insists she knew nothing of any organizing drive.
But if you want to know why this seemingly minor labour dispute captured media and public attention (nearly 8,500 people Facebook-liked the Media Co-op story and more than 100 turned out a week later to protest outside the café), you need to understand two things.
First, the organizing drive at Just Us! is one more piece in a much larger and more complicated jigsaw puzzle. In the aftermath of the 2011 Occupy movement and its focus on economic inequality, low-wage fast food workers in the United States began to rally. In November 2012, 200 of them walked off their jobs in New York, complaining of unliveable wages and lousy working conditions. Over the next few months, thousands more in more than three dozen American cities did the same as questions about the yawning gap between worker wages and those of their bosses — Did you know an experienced McDonald’s burger flipper earns $9.08 an hour while the company CEO pockets more than $9,000 an hour — grew ever more pointed.
And then, of course, there was the man-bites-dog oddity of this particular story. Just Us! billed itself as a “workers’ co-op.” Why would its workers, of all workers, decide they needed to form a union? Odder still was the possibility that a much celebrated Atlantic Canadian co-op created by two social workers to “create jobs, have fun and do good” might turn out to be not only antiunion but also, even worse, to have engaged in unfair labour practices against its employees.
Just Us! didn’t begin with a business plan, spreadsheets and profit projections. It began with a passion for social justice.
Jeff and Debra Moore, an Ontariotrained social-worker couple, had moved to Wolfville, N.S., in the mid- 1970s where they helped launch and run a L’Arche community. L’Arche, a Roman Catholic church-based-butecumenical movement inspired by the son of former Canadian Governor- General Jean Vanier, provides supportive, community-based, home-style living for people with intellectual disabilities. Wolfville’s thriving L’Arche community would eventually include five homes, a day program and a retail outlet.
By the mid-1990s, however, as the Catholic Church itself became more conservative, the Moores (Protestants) were squeezed out at L’Arche.
While Jeff, the more “adventurous” of the two, may have been ready to seek out new adventures elsewhere, Debra, “the organized one,” was not. They’d put down roots in Wolfville. Their two daughters were in high school. And they’d recently adopted Greg, a local boy with Down Syndrome. They needed to find work that would allow them to make a living while staying in Wolfville… and, if possible, remaining true to their values.
In 1993, Jeff had visited his sister in Ethiopia where they’d bought fresh green coffee beans from a roadside seller and roasted the beans on her kitchen stove. Jeff was hooked, not only by the aroma and taste of real, fresh-roasted coffee but by the idea of developing a business selling indigenously-grown organic coffee back in Canada.
The next year, Jeff attended a conference in Cuba to discuss ways to resurrect the Cuban economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Coffee? Jeff pitched the idea, but the Cubans, who were already selling all the coffee they produced, weren’t interested in focusing their limited resources developing a new Canadian market for it.
But then, in September 1995, Jeff read in the New Internationalist Magazine about “fair trade” organic coffee producers in Chiapas, Mexico. In its simplest terms, fair trade is another international social movement intended to help producers in developing countries improve their economic conditions by getting buyers to pay fair prices for the goods they produce while at the same time promoting environmental sustainability and better social conditions in the communities in which the producers live.
Jeff and a friend hopped on a plane to Mexico. They didn’t speak Spanish, and they quickly found themselves in the middle of a war zone as the Mexican military attempted to put down an agrarian revolt by Mayan farmers protesting privatization of their traditional communal lands under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Despite those complications, they eventually found their way to what Jeff would later describe to the authors of In Pursuit of Justice: Just Us! Coffee Roasters and the Fair Trade Movement, a book about the company’s history, as a mountain “paradise… small but well organized indigenous communities with their perfect little churches and maybe a small school, sitting on the top of the mountains looking over lush forests through the clouds.” And, of course, they also found their way to the coffee, grown using traditional organic methods in prime volcanic soil by farmers who were part of a co-op.
Before the late 1970s, these isolated coffee farmers had little choice but to sell their coffee at cup-bottom prices to intermediaries (also known as “coyotes”) who gouged them in the interests of huge multinational coffee companies. But then, 1,300 small, mountain-top farm families, working with local Catholic priests, banded together to form the Uníon de Ejidos de la Selva. Their co-op sold its premium organic coffee to small European wholesalers, and directly to consumers through its own co-op-owned chain of cafés in cities in Mexico and Europe. The profits returned to the local communities. Jeff arrived at the right time. The farmers were looking to expand their markets by wholesaling to small and mediumsized coffee roasters in North America too.
Jeff returned home to Wolfville with an ambitious plan but also a daunting problem. He and Debra and a few like-minded friends were eager to set up a co-op roasting operation to sell Mexican fair trade coffee in Nova Scotia. They even had a name: Just Us!, a play on both the notion of “justice” and the reality that the co-op was “just us.” But the Mexican producers — for a variety of reasons, including the need to hire expensive security to protect coffee shipments from robbers on the journey down from the mountains to the nearest shipment port — had already told Jeff they would only sell him a full container of raw coffee beans. That translated into 17 tons of beans. At a cost of $70,000… up front!
Jeff and Debra didn’t go back to the spreadsheets they hadn’t yet created. Instead, they mortgaged their house to raise the money. Then they began to figure out a business plan.
There were other hurdles to leap. For starters, where to store that much coffee in ways that would keep the beans fresh… while they figured out where to roast it? And, oh yes, how to roast it? With what kind of roaster? They eventually managed to buy their first roaster with the help of an Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency grant. To house it, they bought a small house in nearby New Minas. How small? Well, they had to cut a hole in the main floor to accommodate the height of their first, basementinstalled roaster.
In the early summer of 1996, after Jeff had traveled to New York to take a one-week, everythingyou- ever-wanted-to-know-aboutcoffee- roasting course, the first Just Us! wholesale-retail café opened for business. To make ends meet, Jeff and Debra (Just Us’s only full-time employees) subsisted on extended unemployment benefits from a government program to help wouldbe entrepreneurs start their own businesses.
The business itself thrived almost from opening day, thanks in no small measure to the café, initially an afterthought but which created local wordof- mouth buzz. But the business-plan (there was one now) focus was always on developing the wholesale side. Just Us! quickly convinced specialty coffee houses, health food stores and Co-op Atlantic to stock their premium quality-and-priced fair trade coffee. To promote the brand, Just Us! provided free coffee for church suppers and community events. Eventually, thanks to growing consumer interest in both fair trade and organic products, they won over the big supermarket chains. To entice retailers, Just Us! initially guaranteed sales; if the retailer couldn’t sell their coffee supply within two weeks, Just Us! wouldn’t charge them for it, and would then restock their shelves.
During its second year, in response to consumer demand for variety, Just Us! began sourcing coffee from a second Mexican co-op. It now stocks coffee from fair trade organic producers all over Latin America and as far afield as Ethiopia and Indonesia.
In 2000, the same year the coop passed the one-million-dollar marker in annual sales, it relocated into a much bigger café-roasterywholesale- head-office-coffeemuseum- community-meeting-place headquarters in a former farm market in nearby Grand Pré.
In the years since, there have been other expansions (cafés in Wolfville, on Barrington Street and Spring Garden Road in Halifax, King’s Wharf in Dartmouth, and two more in Toronto) and contractions (Barrington Street and the Toronto cafés have since shuttered).
Just Us! has also done well by doing good. In the regions where they bought coffee, for example, Just Us! pays a social premium (a price above the official fair trade price) to allow producer co-ops to fund local education, health care and community projects. At home, Just Us! contributes generously to support arts and culture while offering their space to community groups for meetings and events.
The Moores’ successes, both commercial and social, have been recognized. They’ve been awarded honourary degrees by the Nova Scotia Agricultural College and Saint Mary’s University, won Acadia University prestigious President’s Entrepreneurial Award for combining entrepreneurial success with “social and environmental responsibility,” and a Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission award for their “ongoing commitment to education, innovation and collaboration in the field of human rights.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, of course. The five founding co-op members/friends didn’t see eye to eye on the idea of expanding beyond their initial, modest roots, or selling their fair trade coffee to corporate supermarket chains. After some difficult years, three eventually left. Partly as a result, Jeff and Debra (“he’s the developer; I’m the one who puts things into action,” she explains) became so central to the co-op’s success their bankers insisted they take out “key-person” life insurance to cover their loans.
But, despite the Moores obvious centrality to the success of the venture, their initial co-op idea survived and, by 2013 (the year the co-op nudged past $7 million in annual sales, the year its Spring Garden café workers decided to form a union) 14 of its 74 employees were members of the co-op. Any fulltime employee could apply to join the co-op after two years. Full-time employees got health benefits, and its baristas automatically earned six per cent above minimum wage.
What could be so bad about that?
Just ask Charlie Huntley.
Charlie Huntley, who is now 26 years old, didn’t set out to be a barista. Growing up in tiny Burlington in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, Charlie’s initial ambition was to be a psychologist.
“I’d had my own struggles with depression and anxiety, so psychology seemed logical.” Charlie (left) enrolled in Science at Dalhousie, then switched to Health Promotion in third year. “The more I learned, the more I realized that treating someone after the fact was not what I wanted to do.”
During Grad Week in 2011 (switching had added an extra year to the traditional four-year Bachelor of Science program) Charlie was “doored” by a car while driving his bike. He broke his collarbone in the accident. Which meant that the job Charlie had lined up in his field, with an MS clinic, was filled by someone else.
To survive while he recovered, Charlie enrolled in some more classes at Dal, which gave him access to the university health care plan as well as the opportunity to work part-time at the Health Services Library.
But registering for those classes, of course, only added to Charlie’s student debt load. Coming from a working class background (his father was a non-union carpenter; mother a service sector worker) and with no family resources to draw on, Charlie eventually racked up $47,000 in student debt. This, in spite of the fact he’d also helped pay for his own education with part-time jobs at the Student Union Building, the food court, the library, even a local yarn store.
Charlie didn’t immediately give up on the idea of finding work that fit his education. During the year after graduation, Charlie applied for more than 30 health promotion jobs, and 100 positions altogether. He did not get a single call back. Between applications, Charlie hustled shifts as a cleaner, a server. He even used his knitting skills to make and sell scarves and mittens, even ear warmers for cyclists.
Finally, a friend who worked at Just Us! recommended Charlie to the manager there. Charlie had been a customer — “I didn’t really understand how a co-op worked, but I knew about fair trade” — and was initially just happy for the relatively steady work.
But there were issues from the beginning. You needed to work 30 hours a week in order to be classified as full-time in order to get those health care benefits, and scheduling was at “the whim of the manager making them up. Favourite people got more consistently good schedules.” Others got stuck with fewer shifts, or a succession of nights, weekends and what staff call “clopens,” a split shift during which the staff member had to open and close the café. The manager, who controlled the baristas’ tip jar, got a share, and could — and did — drain the tip jar if the till happened to be light at the end of a shift.
Yes, any barista could apply to join the co-op after working there for two years. But it cost $2,000 to join, and who could afford that on just pennies more than minimum wage?
Charlie made roughly $550 every two weeks. Rent (Charlie inevitably lived with roommates) ranged from $450-550. Staff at the café were allowed to eat left-over food that wasn’t “fit for selling” to the regular customers, which helped supplement “the cheap stuff” they could buy at the grocery stores. Some even “dumpster dived” for food others were tossing. They bought their clothes at Value Village and the Sally Ann.
“There was no money left at the end of the month,” Charlie says.
And, of course, there was nothing available to put even a dent in that student loan, which continues to hang, like a dark cloud, over Charlie’s hopes for the future.
David Bush knew all about working in a coffee shop.
He’d been a barista at a Second Cup just down the street from Just Us! and at Steve-o-Reno’s, another popular downtown café. “I’d worked for $5.75 an hour.” He’d been politicized through social action — anti-war and anti-globalization activism, labour solidarity — and had eventually ended up as an organizer for Local 2 of the Service Workers’ International Union.
The SEIU, which represents more than two million workers in Canada and the United States in the health care, public sector and property services industries (many of them immigrants and minorities) is the pointy end of the trade union stick in the growing struggle to organize low-waged workers and apply pressure to increase the minimum wage in cities, states and provinces and, in the process, re-energize the moribund North American trade union movement.
In 2012, Bush, in fact, had been involved in what turned into a fizzled organizing drive at Just Us!. He’d been contacted by disgruntled workers in Wolfville and Halifax. “I did some research at the time and saw that it was technically a co-op, but the structure looked pretty top heavy to me.” He met with the workers but, in the end, they decided to write an open letter to management rather than join the union. “That was their call,” he says simply.
Bush himself left the union soon after to enrol in a Master’s program in Labour Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, O.N. But he was back in Halifax in 2013, working on a shortterm contract for the union.
One day he stopped in at Just Us! for a coffee and to do some work on his computer. He already knew one of the baristas there “from around town.” The barista, Shay Enxuga, was complaining about his working conditions, so Bush decided to be “cheeky. I told Shay, ‘You guys should be in a union!’ On the one hand, I was just joking,” Bush allows today. “On the other, I was trying to feel out the situation. ‘If you ever want to talk about this…’”
Shay talked with a few coworkers, including Charlie. There were meetings, and more meetings with union reps. More workers began attending. Soon, they had a critical mass of the café’s dozen workers ready to commit.
That’s when, according to the union, a café supervisor confronted another barista named Elijah Williams. “Do you know anything about disgruntled employees… talk about unions and labour boards,” she reportedly demanded?
Two days later, Williams and Enxuga, who’d each been with the café for more than a year, were told they were no longer a “good fit” and dismissed.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
Six months later, the story was very different. After the workers voted 90 per cent in favour of joining the union, the two sides got down to serious but “amicable” bargaining.
Shortly before Christmas 2013, they struck a three-year deal that created what Charlie calls “stable,” full-time, 40-hour-a-week work for five employees (versus two-to-four 30-hour-a-week workers before the union contract) with scheduling by seniority, worker control of tips, a clearer grievance procedure and modest salary increases (25 to 30-cents an hour immediately, with another 25-cents in 2015). After the signing, Enxuga and Williams were hired back but, in what appears to have been part of the negotiations, resigned the next day.
Unionizing, Charlie says today, “was a transformative process” for the employees. “We realized we don’t have to sit back and take whatever management gives us.”
Debra Moore seems equally satisfi ed with the new arrangement, even though the unionization process ultimately cost the co-op $100,000 in legal and other fees. At fi rst, she says, she worried the union would make “unrealistic demands. Once we realized that wasn’t going to happen, the fear went away. It wasn’t adversarial and it doesn’t need to be.”
With the union, she adds, “things are so much clearer and so much better.” The previous grievance procedure, which wasn’t working, has been “changed and improved.” Having the workers handle their own tips, she adds, “saved us three hours of staff time” a week. Better still, there’s now a process of addressing issues. “We can go to the union if we’re not happy. If an employee is wearing inappropriate clothing, we talk to the union. The down side is that we can’t be fl exible. We have to stick to the contract, or the whole would be null and void.”
The Just Us! unionization has already had a ripple effect in other Halifax coffee shops.
Just a few months after the Just Us! story broke in the media, baristas at two Second Cup locations also voted to join the same union. Wages eventually jumped from minimum wage to $10.82 an hour. More recently, the SEIU applied to represent workers at Coburg Coffee, another popular café near Dalhousie University. A vote was held in June 2014 but, as of this writing, the labour board is still considering arguments over which employees were eligible to vote.
Charlie Huntley, who was active in both those other organizing drives, no longer has any interest in trying to find a job in the health promotion field for which he’d trained. “The most important social factor central to poor health is economic status,” he says. So Charlie wants to shift his focus to “economic justice as the best way to promote good health.”
And, oh yes, like too many of his full-time, hard-working, twentysomething peers, Charlie is still trying to fi gure out a way to live and pay down student loans. He smiles when I raise the issue: “Yeah… to have a job and be able to pay off my loans. That would be awesome.”