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The dining room inside Stella’s Sherbrook was near empty Monday morning, the typically illuminated open sign in the window dimmed, though a few people trickled through the side door.
A different scene played out in front of the restaurant, however, as horns blared and more than a dozen staff at the West Broadway restaurant, wearing yellow pinnies with the words 'On Strike,’ waved union flags and picketed on the sidewalk.
"It’s not a strike about wages. It’s really about working conditions and the way folks are treated in the workplace," United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832 president Jeff Traeger said at the strike headquarters four doors away.
"These folks are serving tables all day long, and right in the middle of the worst of the pandemic for the city, so to say you don't deserve any additional compensation above minimum wage for doing that, that's tough on them."
On Monday, 39 staff, including servers, baristas, hosts, cooks and dishwashers went on strike after negotiations between Stella’s and the union toward the renewal of a collective bargaining agreement broke down.
Employees at the Sherbrook location unionized in December 2018 after numerous complaints by current and former staff, detailing a hostile, toxic work environment and allegations of sexual harassment surfaced online as part of the "Not My Stella’s" campaign earlier that year.
The Manitoba Labour Board imposed a one-year contract last September that included a respectful workplace policy, roughly five per cent wage increase and paid breaks. In the first three weeks of the contract going into effect, the union filed five grievances over differences in interpretation of the wage scale and break scheduling.
On Sunday, Traeger said 85 per cent of the location’s staff participated in the vote to take strike action, and 85 per cent voted in favour.
Negotiations on the new contract have stalled, primarily, in addressing concerns raised by staff over how breaks, scheduling, seniority and availability are handled by management, he said.
"We’ve got solutions to all those problems. Some of our members brought those solutions to management well in advance of this process and were not listened to," Traeger said.
"They just seem to be entrenched in a certain management style, and that’s the management style that brought them the Not My Stella’s campaign."
The union is also demanding that staff who have one year of service with the company receive a 25-cent wage increase when minimum wage goes up next month October. The increase would maintain the 60 cent wage increase workers receive after working one year with the restaurant.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for Stella’s said accepting the proposal from the union as written would be "disastrous."
"The timing of this action is deeply unfortunate, as Stella’s also had to take the first steps towards the painful decision to close our airport location, Stella’s YWG," the statement said.
"As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have now shuttered two locations, our Osborne and YWG locations, which has meant the loss of over 50 jobs within the Stella’s family."
Stella’s Osborne location was the first to unionize in December 2018. The restaurant, which was the first for the brand and opened in 1999, closed in May. An organizing drive was underway at the airport location, though the results of that vote have not been released as the ballot box has been sealed by the labour board since March, the union said.
The company said it would close the airport cafe on Oct. 16 due to a severe decline in air traffic and fewer people moving through the terminal. The restaurant’s 36 staff have an opportunity to apply for positions within the company, according to a statement from vice-president Rob Del Grosso.
Stella’s has five other restaurants in the city as well as a commissary and a bakery.
The business said it would not provide additional comment on the labour dispute until there is a "significant change" surrounding the strike action.
"It should be noted that at the present time, with the exception of our Sherbrook location, all other Stella’s locations are open as normal to serve our valued guests, and continue to provide jobs for our fellow Winnipeggers in the extremely difficult circumstances we all find ourselves in during this pandemic," the statement said.
According to Stella’s, it made an offer to the union late last night in an effort to avert the strike. Traeger said the offer contained a "symbolic and non-substantial change" to the employer's position.
Traeger said the union is preparing for the strike to continue for some time and will apply to have a conciliation officer appointed.
"It's really nice for me to see a group of young people who are willing to stand up and say to their employer 'I'm not going to take this anymore,' rather than what would normally happen in this industry: they'd quit, leave or go work somewhere else," Traeger said. "Our hope is that it’s going to be brief and that the employer will get back to the bargaining table and offer our members a fair deal."
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.
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