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                       Will Tim Hortons Make Labour An Election Issue?

 

By Brad James

Businesses change their employees’ terms of employment all the time—up, down, add a bit here, shave something else there. It rarely makes the news, because it is not news.

But when the owners of a Tim’s outlet in Cobourg, Ontario decided to pull back paid breaks and other benefits from their employees after the January minimum wage increase, the particular circumstances caught the public’s attention, and now the iconic Tim’s brand is taking a national pounding.

It might have been a one-day story if the proprietors had been, let’s say, a couple of hard-working local school teachers who happened to own the coffee shop franchise, working nights and weekends to keep it going, and who regretfully had to dial back on some current employee benefits.

Instead, they are the son of Ron Joyce and the daughter of Tim Horton, the married heirs to Tim’s founders. They reportedly issued their cuts to Cobourg employees from their winter home in Florida. If this was the first salvo in some mastermind strategy to fight Ontario’s new minimum wage, it was a flop.

It was also a late Christmas gift to Premier Kathleen Wynne. She jumped into the fray, calling the franchise owners bullies. Conservative Leader Patrick Brown has been pretty much AWOL on the controversy, while NDP Leader Andrea Horwath sought attention by accusing the Liberals of dragging their feet for too long on the minimum wage increase.

Media coverage in the first few days focused on what employees might do to respond. There was plenty of hoo-hah about Tim’s employees making employment standards complaints or lawyering up for constructive dismissal cases (neither an easy option for most minimum wage workers.)

But in those first few days there was close to nothing in the media coverage about collective representation options as a response for employees who felt aggrieved. Unions, in other words.

If labour had strong private sector membership, the media would have been calling the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) or Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) for comments right off the bat. But, with union membership in the food services sector hovering around a paltry 7%, unions were understandably not top of mind in most early journalism stories about the Tim’s fiasco.

But then unions began to take action and the coverage shifted. Labour and employee rights groups began arranging public rallies of support for Tim’s employees. Social media commentators advocated unionization as an option for employees wanting to protect their terms of employment. Unions, my own included (Steelworkers), began getting calls from Tim’s workers.

What is certain is that low paid working people will have higher wages. After that, where some of this goes next is anyone’s guess. Employers can respond to the wage increase in different ways: doing nothing and perhaps taking lower profits; increasing prices; or adjusting the hours or benefits of existing workers. In response, employees at some Tim’s outlets might unionize. Indeed, last summer a group in Oshawa did that very thing.

But huge roadblocks exist between joining a union and bargaining a decent collective agreement.

As I noted a few months ago, the Ontario government’s Bill 148 revisions to the Labour Relations Act and the Employment Standards Act did not address the truth that the nature of employment in the franchise sector requires a brand new model of labour relations.

A popular recent Toronto Star op-ed by the United Steelworkers Ontario Director describes the problem and sets out a fix: a revision to labour laws to allow collective bargaining to proceed simultaneously with multiple and differently-owned franchisees of the same franchisor chain.  

Early this past summer, the government’s special advisors nailed the problem, categorically stating that Ontario’s laws do not fit “… the development of large-scale franchising as a business model. There is no sound labour relations reason to allow for certification of bargaining units in single locations and not permit them to grow. Indeed, as the (provincial Labour Board) has found in many cases, larger units and the avoidance of fragmentation generally best serve the interests of the employees and the employers. The current LRA (Labour Relations Act) offers no effective or meaningful access to collective bargaining for thousands of workers in multiple location enterprises or franchise operations.”

The Liberal government has not said why it designed Bill 148 without addressing this vacuum in the law. It has not explained why a bill said to be concerned with low wage and "precariously employed" Ontarians failed to provide a more intelligent labour relations structure for both franchise employees and their employers.

Remarkably, nor has the NDP chosen to focus on the issue.  The NDP could have tried to amend Bill 148 during the legislative process to advocate for broader-based bargaining in the franchise sector. It could have drawn a stark contrast for voters to choose between that smarter path and the government’s inaction. It did not.

But this issue may gain some legs. A new poll shows 60% support for Ontario’s minimum wage increase. The media will be on the lookout for other ham-fisted decisions by some franchise owners. The latest may be a Whitby Tim’s owner, all in the same tidy memo, reportedly cutting its employees benefits and telling them how to vote in June’s provincial election.

So in the coming months, as some employers try to avoid increased costs by taking away existing employee benefits and as those stories get covered, voters just might start asking all three parties for their positions on modernizing labour laws to fit our economy.

So, if employees’ unionization rights actually become an election issue, franchise employees will have a handful of Tim’s owners to thank.

 

Brad James is the Organizing Department Leader for the United Steelworkers Canadian National Office. Follow him on Twitter @jamesbrad263. Opinions expressed are his own.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted date : January 15, 2018
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