Laid-off Java Blend staff say they were terminated for union drive, but company disputes it

Laid-off Java Blend staff say they were terminated for union drive, but company disputes it

Employees recently laid-off by a north-end Halifax coffee shop say they were illegally terminated for trying to start a union, but the company’s owners say financial difficulties are to blame.

On Wednesday, Service Employees International Union Local 2 filed an unfair labour practice complaint with the Nova Scotia Labour Board on behalf of nine Java Blend workers terminated last week.

They allege the company’s owners violated sections 53 and 58 of the Trade Union Act by “terminating union organizers in retaliation under the guise of layoffs required to maintain financial stability.” 

The complaint asks that all severed workers be reinstated to their former positions and reimbursed for lost wages and benefits.

“We believe our terminations are a direct result of orchestrated retaliation from Java Blend aimed at crushing our workers’ rights,” said former employee and organizer Cailen Pygott, who worked for the company for over six years prior to being terminated last week. 

In a post shared to social media last week, the company cited financial difficulties made worse by the pandemic as the reason for the layoffs, saying they were “the only way to avoid closing our cafe doors permanently.” 

Java Blend has been a fixture on North Street for over 30 years.

The company is now owned by Joe Dunford, Alex Lee, Adam Bose and Ibrar Ul Haq Malazai, who also own and operate Cortado Tasting Room in Bedford, a downtown Java Blend location and a coffee roasting facility in Dartmouth.

A union certification vote involving employees at all four locations was held last June, but the ballot box remains sealed following an objection from Java Blend’s owners, who questioned the scope of the bargaining unit.

A Java Blend worker dispenses coffee beans at the cafe's North St. location on Wednesday.
A Java Blend worker dispenses coffee beans at the café’s North Street location on Wednesday. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Pygott was one of the lead organizers of the union drive, along with Emily Kristensen, Em Cooper and Andy Mawko. All four were among those laid off last week.

Organizers say they sought to form a union to protect their rights as workers, to prevent erratic scheduling and having hours cut without notice, and to improve health and safety measures.

They were inspired to organize, in part, due to efforts from employees at Pete’s Frootique in Halifax, who recently ratified their first collective bargaining agreement.

“Java Blend has been a pillar in many different communities for nearly a century, and if this orchestrated attack can happen to us, it can happen to any other local café or business,” said Pygott. 

Java Blend disputes union-busting claims

On Wednesday, co-owners Dunford and Lee strongly denied allegations the company laid off workers because of their attempts to unionize.

They say they had to cut labour costs or risk having to close their doors for good due to the company’s financial position.

Two men pose for a photograph. On the left, a man with a blue long-sleeve shirt who is wearing a hat looks at the camera. On the right, a man wearing a vest and a grey t-shirt looks at the camera.
Joe Dunford and Alex Lee are two of four co-owners of Java Blend. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Both said they didn’t realize they had laid off all four leading organizers. They said the layoffs were based on seniority and the cost to keep or sever each employee, among other factors. 

“This is terrible,” said Dunford, who said the layoffs are an awful “thing to happen to good people who helped us get this far.

“Anybody that thinks it’s an easy thing to do, to go and lay off a bunch of people who represent your company to the community ought to give it a try. It’s not about union-busting, it’s about staying open.”

Pygott, one of the café’s longest-tenured employees, was the only worker laid off who the owners say they knew was involved in organizing efforts.

While the allegations in the complaint have not been proven, Lee did confirm that he previously spoke with Pygott about his unionization efforts.

A sign says Java Blend Coffee Roasters.
Java Blend’s downtown Halifax location. (Andrew Sampson/CBC )

Lee said he told him last June that an investor had asked the ownership group to fire Pygott and encouraged him to seek legal counsel. 

He also acknowledged that early last month, he had another conversation with Pygott where he told him that unionization efforts were making it difficult to attract investors.  

But he maintains that Pygott and the other organizers weren’t fired for their efforts. 

Laid-off workers hosting rally

The company said it will pay each laid-off employee twice the amount required under the Nova Scotia Labour Code and has extended benefit plans to the end of February.

But workers said Wednesday they felt the company was attempting to buy their silence by making the additional pay contingent on signing an agreement prohibiting them from taking legal action and talking about the terms of their layoff and settlement. 

“If the interpretation of that is intimidation and hiding, that is unfortunate. And that is something that we’ll keep an eye out every time we make anything official,” said Lee. 

Java Blend’s owners now say that all laid-off employees will receive severance regardless of whether they sign the agreement.

The workers plan to host a rally outside the North Street Java Blend location in support of their complaint on Feb. 10.