Halifax coffee shop workers say they were laid off for trying to form union

Halifax coffee shop workers say they were laid off for trying to form union

Several former employees of the Halifax coffee shop Java Blend are speaking out after the company laid off nine staff members last week, all while workers awaited the results of a unionization vote from June 2023.

A press conference was held by SEIU Local 2, a union representing nearly 20,000 workers throughout Canada, at a Hampton Inn in Halifax on Wednesday morning to address the mass termination.

Cailen Pygott, one of the union drive’s leaders at the Java Blend Cafe on North Street, said he believes his termination was a direct result of his attempt to form a union at his workplace.

“We believe the cafe was targeted for these terminations because that’s where they believe forming a union is the strongest,” he said during a media availability.

Java Blend has two cafe locations, one on North Street and another on Sackville Street in Halifax, along with a production warehouse in Dartmouth and a tasting room in Bedford. Employees at all locations participated in a union vote last summer, according to a release from SEIU 2.

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Pygott said Java Blend citing financial issues as its reason for reducing staff, in the midst of the business’s recent expansion such as purchasing another cafe and moving into a larger warehouse space, is “inconsistent with its most lucrative cafe on North Street.”

In a release from SEIU Local 2 on Wednesday, the union demanded that the terminated workers be reinstated and receive reimbursement for any lost wages.

“The employer’s conduct has all the hallmarks of an orchestrated campaign of retaliation aimed at crushing workers’ rights, according to the complaint,” the statement read, referring to an unfair labour practice complaint submitted to the Nova Scotia Labour Board on Wednesday.

The complaint filed to the board suggests that the employees were terminated “in retaliation for organizing a union in their workplace.”

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“The Employer has enacted this retaliation under the guise of layoffs required to maintains financial stability,” read the complaint, which was quoted in the SEIU release. “However, in doing so the Employer has terminated only twenty-five per cent (25%) of the workforce, but a full one hundred per cent (100%) of the Union’s organizing committee.”

‘Our silence is not for sale’

Emily Kristensen, who was the main union leader at Java Blend’s Sackville Street location before she was laid off, said staff members were presented with a non-disclosure agreement upon their termination.

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“If we had signed, they would’ve provided us with additional termination pay, but also required us to keep all details confidential,” she said. “However, our silence is not for sale.”

Kristensen added that she believes the employer’s actions were “inappropriate” considering the ongoing union certification process.

“We also do not think that it’s a coincidence that while a mere 25 per cent of the company was laid off, 100 per cent of our union leaders were terminated,” she noted.

“Our union vote was eight months ago, and the ballots still have not been counted because Java Blend has raised countless objections. Nova Scotian workers deserve better,” Kristensen said.

Andy Mawco, another union drive leader laid off by the company last week, said he’s experienced a significant number of changes throughout his four years with the company such as “unfair scheduling” and a reduction in working hours.

“Forming a union was the only way we could do anything about these issues,” he said. “We believe that we should be given our jobs back and that we should be compensated for our lost wages.”

Java Blend responds

In an emailed statement to Global News on Wednesday afternoon, Java Blend denied that the recent staff terminations had anything to do with unionization efforts.

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“Layoffs were a financial necessity and in no way related to the certification application,” read a statement from Alex Lee, one of Java Blend’s owners, adding that the coffee shop has struggled financially since March 2020.

“The decision was the only way to avoid closing our café doors permanently so we can continue serving customers in a sustainable way.”

Lee said the company only learned today “from the media” that the union has filed a complaint, and intends to fully respond.

“We made every effort to prioritize our doors being open and our staff keeping their positions and hours,” Lee said.

Tina Oh, a union organizer with SEIU Local 2, said “red flags were raised immediately” when her organization received news that a mass termination occurred at a cafe with an ongoing union certification.

“The North Street location, where the terminations took place, is the most lucrative aspect of the Java Blend company … so, to see workers who have built that reputation up, to lose their jobs is quite suspicious and what we view to be a union-busting tactic here,” she said. “One of the most atrocious things that an employer can do is violate what is a legitimate right that workers have earned.

Oh said the individuals who lost their jobs were all active leaders of an ongoing effort to unionize at Java Blend.

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“They were not anonymous faces. These folks were actively talking to coworkers in the workplace, outside the workplace, they were wearing SEIU apparel. Customers were asking them how the union campaign was going,” she continued. The reason why that’s so significant to understand here is because the employer knew who the leaders were, and as a result of that, this was a targeted attack to get rid of those leaders from the workplace.”

Oh said she thinks it’s “highly egregious” that 100 per cent of the union leaders have been terminated.

The three former staff members present on Wednesday said they’re encouraging the public to rally alongside workers on Feb. 10 outside of Java Blend’s location on North Street.

— with files from Amber Fryday

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