What Would a Union of Baristas Mean to the Coffee Shop Owner?

If you haven’t read all about it, a recent article spoke of a group of well-meaning folk in Halifax would like to create a union of coffee shop employees.  Yep, you read that correctly – baristas – your daily latte slingers.

Unions all started with a good purpose – employees were getting abused and treated unfairly.  These kind of things still happen today.  The people trying to create this niche union feel things could be better.

The Vancouver Coffee Shop Franchisees Association formulated for similar reasons – we saw acts of injustice taking place towards Franchisees of popular coffee shop chains by their Franchisors.  The Franchisees were in a position of vulnerability and subject to gross abuse by means of hand-crafted contracts by skilled lawyers – especially in BC where there is currently no franchise legislation.  In a sense, the VCSFA is a kind of ‘union’ of like-minded people.

Do the baristas need to actually unionize, though?

It was notable to us that Second Cup was mentioned on several occasions as a possible inspiration for the union.  Second Cup is a coffee shop Franchise well known in Canada, specifically around Ontario.  Second Cup has few locations (possibly just one?) in BC and operates primarily in the other provinces, so we are not yet entirely familiar with their specific Franchisor-Franchisee relationship.  That said, we know how the relationships between staff and Franchisee can be strained as a result of financial pressures from operating a franchised coffee shop.  Perhaps this trickled down to the staff?  Perhaps the Franchisees were locked into tricky contracts that pummelled their finances and they started viewing their staff as expenses rather than prized assets?  One can only speculate but it’s important to understand both sides of this story.

The coffee shop business, with it’s high operating costs and usually severe competition, is not well suited for providing high paid jobs – at least not many of them at the same location.  The argument against this position – and it’s valid – is that you can attract ‘talent’ by paying more and offering benefits.  In the coffee business, much like the restaurant business, there is a threshold where eventually paying more is not an option. Hence the gradual acceptance of the tip jar (usually an old stained mug to be precise). In many of the coffee shops we know, a good barista will earn no less than an average of $2/hour extra just from that old stained mug.

If the customer is willing to pay more for their drink there is no reason why a unionized labour force wouldn’t work but we are not convinced that the current market will allow for such a price hike.  One can look towards Australia where tipping is not part of the culture.  Word has it that a barista makes between $12 and $16/hr.  Accordingly, word also has it that the drinks in Australia are priced higher and the volume per cup is much less.

The coffee shop needs to remain a very flexible job as it serves a very unique employment position in our country.  If the Union of Professional Baristas (or whatever they decide to call themselves) is willing to work reasonably with the owners of both franchised and independent cafes, it *could* work but we think issues can still be worked out between the owner and the barista.