You Can’t Organize From The Outside: Stella’s

Patrick McGuire recounts a short-lived IWW campaign at a restaurant in Winnipeg in 2002, which has recently hit the headlines again as former staff blow the whistle on ongoing harassment. Interview by Marianne Garneau.

Tell me about Stella’s and how you got involved

It was kind of a hip bakery / brunch place in Osborne village, which is one of the hip districts in inner-city Winnipeg.

I wasn’t actually working there. We had an IWW job shop at the time at Natural Cycle, a worker coop that did bike repair and maintenance, and one of the members who worked there worked part time at Stella’s as a cook. And he was really frustrated with the conditions: the boss was playing favorites, people were being set up to be fired, there was general bullying, and kind of a toxic vibe in the workplace… So he decided he wanted to organize.

He talked informally to 5 or 6 people in the workplace, which at the time had about 30 employees, and then he decided to call a meeting, and management found out about it the day it was supposed to happen, and the campaign was over before it started. He was fired that night. He was called at 10 pm on a Sunday and told, “You’re out.”

This happened in the fall or early winter of 2002. Ironically, H and I had just gone to Convention in Ottawa that year, and taken our first Organizer Training. But no one else in the branch had taken it, and we hadn’t had a chance to share it with other people. It was one of the first times the OT had been run. We did roleplays with Staughton Lynd!

So the OT was brand new, this member didn’t get a chance to benefit from it, and basically the campaign went public before there was a committee. Before there was any basis of support whatsoever. The employer heard about it, he got fired, and from that moment it was a reactive campaign.

We had a meeting where we had four or five of his coworkers show up, but none of them felt confident joining. They weren’t going to take out a card and also get fired.

We tried to get the wobbly his job back, but he didn’t have enough of a base of support to pull off job actions in the workplace. There was nothing going on, on the shop floor. So that meant that the Winnipeg branch – which was probably about 10 people at the time – just did support pickets outside. For the next 6-8 weeks, on and off, we did pickets during their brunch rush on Sundays.

We also filed an unfair labor practice (ULP). We had a hearing set for May of 2003 – four or five months later – and then right before it, their lawyer contacted us and asked for a meeting. We hashed out an agreement, and the worker got 3 months’ wages in exchange for not coming back. At the time, that was the best we felt we could do because there was nothing happening on the shop floor.

And we thought, “Do we really want to go ahead with the ULP?” It was just as possible they were going to find there was no labor violation, because we – the IWW – had gone before them two or three times in the previous four years, and the commissioners or arbitrators, some of them really hated the IWW and specifically CUPW, who were our aides, doing all our legal work pro bono. We had a 50-50 chance.

So we just decided we’d take the settlement, and that was the end of it. That was fifteen and a half years ago. And part of the settlement was a non-disclosure. We weren’t supposed to ever talk about it publicly.

But now there is this Not My Stella’s campaign which has popped up, and I’ve had five people – Vice, The Winnipeg Free Press, the CBC, etc. – reach out to us in the last week wanting to talk about the historic drive there.

Does the branch have any connection to the Not My Stella’s campaign?

Not officially, no. They did invite us to one of their meetings, but we had a prior commitment. We do know a couple of people who work there.

So what are the lessons from that campaign from 2002?

One thing I didn’t talk about so far but that we took away: Stella’s had this image at the time of being this urban, cool, hip, vegetarian-friendly restaurant, and I remember this being discussed after the firing, during the battle for the hearts and minds of the workers who were still in the shop. Most of that was happening on MySpace pages (Facebook didn’t exist yet), and most of the employees there were younger and involved in the local music scene. And there was this real resistance on the part of the workers to being upset with their employer, because they identified with the employer, based on the employer’s lifestyle choices. So the fact that the employer was vegetarian or had cool tattoos or listened to the same punk band. That was one of the things that really chafed us: not recognizing that your boss is your boss is your boss. Even if they’re culturally similar to you. Vegan boss? Still the boss.

The biggest thing is: this is what organizing was like back in the pre-Organizer Training days, before the OT 101, which talks about the crucial importance of building the committee, laying the groundwork, and then engaging in some collective actions before you go public.

You also never want to go it alone. It is very hard to fight that struggle [to unionize, or reverse a firing] from outside of the workplace with just community and branch solidarity. You really need a decent number of people on the shop floor who are going to have your back.

In this case, if we had even had five or six people who were willing to take some kind of action, we probably could have got that worker’s job back. It could have gone somewhere. But because he hadn’t done that – and in his defense, he was young, probably 22 at the time, and he hadn’t had the opportunity to take the training – it was the early days of thinking strategically about what organizing your workplace actually looks like.

What happened when you did the outreach to the four or five people after that firing? Where did that go?

I would say it kind of went nowhere. I think they were well-meaning and decent human beings, but they were not convinced we could protect their jobs. And so they didn’t take out cards. We also didn’t have enough of a strategic or tactical idea of what types of actions they could have carried out even if they didn’t join the union.

I have a slightly different take, which is that firings are really hard to reverse, and if you don’t reorient the campaign to the battle inside the workplace, it doesn’t end well.

Right, then it’s a reactive campaign.

Well I appreciate being able to “archive” another campaign for Organizing Work, even if it is mostly just a negative lesson.

Yup. And the thing is, Not My Stella’s is also kind of a reactive campaign, where you’ve got three or four employees who have moved on, who are no longer there, who are now voicing criticisms. And this is one of the most exciting and interesting grassroots labor things that has happened in Winnipeg in a number of years, so it’s awesome, but it has the same kind of limitations where you’ve got some very vocal people running a social media campaign outside of the workplace. But it’s really unclear what workers in the workplace are still doing.

And there are 500 of them! They’ve got five or six locations now, in Winnipeg.

The thing that we’ve been struggling with – sitting on the sidelines and not directly involved – is: well, what is this employer going to do? They’re going to fire the two most egregious, abusive managers, they’re going to turtle for a little while and let the negative PR blow over, and they’re going to make some superficial changes in their HR policy, and then they’re going to go back to business as usual. Because there doesn’t appear to be anything that’s going to hold them accountable internally.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe things are happening inside, and I’m just not there.

Oh and one more thing: I’m waiting to see whether I get a note from their lawyer about violating the non-disclosure.

I was going to ask: what made you decide to violate it?

Essentially that there has been so much attention to this Not My Stella’s campaign, and there have been dozens and dozens of complaints against them, about them violating labor law and being horrible employers. And I just felt it totally vindicated our original drive about them being shitty bosses.

It also vindicates the people who have come forward, because there is a gender dynamic, with the primarily female-led whistle-blowing that is happening with Not My Stella’s. Anything we can do to support it, and lend some credence to what they are doing, we want to do that.

Why do you suppose employers require people sign non-disclosure agreements?

They want to kill the memory of the thing ever happening.

When the original worker was fired, and we were negotiating the settlement, we said, “Well, if you’re not motivated by anti-union animus, let us come in to one of our staff meetings and make a presentation about our union. We’ll distribute some information, and the workers can make up their mind.”

That was the thing, too: the employer had formerly been a shop steward for a small northern airline. So he said, “I can’t be anti-union, I used to be a shop steward in a union!”

Did you actually say that to them – “let us come in and make a presentation about the union”?

Yes, we did.

What did they say in response?

They laughed, and they said there was no way that would happen.

But to us, it [the firing] was very clearly motivated by the anti-union campaign, based on the timing, and some of the conversations that were overheard by other (sympathetic) workers. And the employer got off. They were able to snuff this union drive right away, with minimal public shaming of them, and then it cost them about a thousand dollars to sweep it under the rug and make it go away.

They bought their labor peace for a thousand bucks, and it lasted for 15 years.