November 11, 2019

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Lots of risk, little reward

Tsunami of abuse, harassment allegations at Stella's offers chance to talk about changes that would take workers' necks off chopping block 

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/11/2018 (360 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/11/2018 (360 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the fall of 2002, a worker at Stella's decided it was time to do something to improve working conditions.

At the time, the restaurant was three years old, not yet the Winnipeg institution it would later become. But it was already a hit, wrapped in the trappings of cool. The food was good. The owners and staff seemed young and hip.

Yet behind the scenes, the worker thought, things weren't so slick. Bullying and harassment seemed to flow from management, which played favourites. Staff were often fired abruptly, or made to work long hours without breaks.

So that day, he reached out to his co-workers. He wanted to plan a meeting to consider organizing through Industrial Workers of the World, an international general union that, at that time, was nearing its 100th anniversary.

The same night, at about 10 p.m., he received a phone call from his boss: he was fired.

The timing of the call was suspicious; it is illegal to fire a worker for wanting to unionize. The worker filed a labour board complaint and, over the ensuing weeks, IWW members moved to picket Stella's on freezing-cold mornings.

Eventually, the restaurant's ownership agreed to a settlement with the worker, paying out some wages. He never worked at Stella's again, and the IWW agreed not to discuss the dispute. At the time, it was the best the union could do.

Years passed. The business swelled to a local behemoth, with more than 500 employees across its seven restaurants, bakery and catering locations. The story of its labour clash faded into distant memory. And nothing else changed.

That is, not until last week, when the dam broke and a flood of stories of worker mistreatment gushed through.

By now, Winnipeggers have seen how the #NotMyStellas movement swelled into a deluge. In just over a week, the Instagram account @NotMyStellas has gathered more than 275 stories documenting a wide range of toxic incidents.

Christina Hajjar (left), Amanda Murdock, and Kelsey Wade spoke out about a workplace culture of harassment at Stella's.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Christina Hajjar (left), Amanda Murdock, and Kelsey Wade spoke out about a workplace culture of harassment at Stella's.

In the wake of those allegations, IWW organizers decided to speak out this week about their original 2002 action.

"It indicates to us, from our original struggle 16 years ago, that this is a pattern of behaviour with this employer," says IWW branch secretary Patrick McGuire, who helped organize the pickets and labour board complaint against Stella's.

"That’s collective action," McGuire says. "We tried to do that 16 years ago. If Stella's had responded a different way, could the workplace culture have changed enough to avoid having the type of harassment we’re seeing right now?"

That is the heart of the matter, the next part of this story. What the #NotMyStellas movement did was shine light not just on Stella's, but on the reality that abuse and violations of employment standards apparently persisted for years. (In Manitoba, the Employment Standards Branch does have a small unit that launches random investigations, but its resources are limited.)

Those conditions, by many accounts, are rampant within the service industry. That is not a defence of mistreatment at Stella's, and does not excuse it: rather, it rings even louder alarm bells about the normalization of toxic conditions.

So what will it take to change them?

Employment law is supposed to protect workers from some of this mistreatment. Yet enforcement is, in some ways, tilted towards employers; it is primarily complaint-driven, putting the onus — and risk — on workers to step forward.

To do that, they have to know their rights in the first place. They have to navigate what can be an intimidating process, one with time limits and time-consuming procedures — and they have to do it fearing repercussions.

"If no one makes a complaint, then nothing happens," says Alan Levy, a labour mediator and associate professor at Brandon University, who teaches conflict resolution. "And people are understandably scared to make a complaint."

Over the years, many workers at Stella's did try to step forward, by filing complaints with management and approaching the Human Rights Commission. But in the end, nothing changed until they sought the public's support.

There could be better ways to protect workers. For instance, Levy suggests, some large companies hold random human resources audits; workplace standards authorities could do the same, dropping in to ensure fair treatment.

Stella’s on Pembina Highway

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Stella’s on Pembina Highway

The public would be rightly alarmed if food-safety standards were investigated and enforced only when someone complained. So the question is: should the safety and well-being of workers not be given the same consideration?

"There should be laws to ensure that employers are living up to the spirit of the law," Levy says. "That it not just be reliant on complaints... there should be some assurance that the government acts in the interests of all its citizens."

Inside workplaces, McGuire says, there are options for workers to organize for better treatment. Those options can range from informal committees that present concerns to management and negotiate solutions, to full unionization.

Sometimes, McGuire encounters folks who say they don't need a union because their bosses treat them well.

"That’s equivalent of saying, 'I love the government, so I don’t need to vote,'" he says.

But the sentiment underscores a larger issue: the labour movement is declining in Canada, particularly in the private sector, though not as perilously as in the United States, where legislators have long eviscerated labour protections.

That decline has meant, in part, that labour has faded from public discussion. Discussions about work have often been glaringly absent from the surging social movements that have animated North America in the 21st century.

Perhaps it's time for that to change. Because what the Stella's story underscores, more than anything, is how easily worker abuse can persist, and how difficult it is for people to find ways to challenge toxic and unhealthy conditions.

Meanwhile, most people want to believe that the businesses they patronize treat workers well. In some ways, Stella's built its popularity on that desire, gilding itself in a veneer of being a friendly local employer with happy workers.

So maybe the best thing that could happen, in the wake of the #NotMyStellas movement, would be for the stories of worker abuse there to serve as tinder, to light a revitalized discussion about work, rights and fair treatment of labour.

Change shouldn't have to rely on workers stepping into the glare of the media or risking their jobs by speaking out.

"We do have options for workers, rather than just having brave whistleblowers coming forward after it’s become intolerable," McGuire says. "They can do something about it. They can take control of their lives and fight back."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

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