Solidarity and Power in the Face of a Terrified Employer: The IWW campaign at Frite Alors

Frite Alors is a small restaurant franchise in Quebec with about ten locations. In 2015, an organizing campaign began at the Rachel Street location – one of the locations owned by the founder. Here, a worker describes that campaign, how and why it began, and how it ended.

The campaign at Frite Alors Rachel went public in August of 2016. But that was just another step in a long, ongoing campaign that already relied on direct action against the employer to make gains on the floor.

Origins of the campaign

The organizing committee of the Montréal branch had been looking for a while to have a first big campaign go public. While we had had some successes in certain places and in solidarity campaigns supporting other unions, a unionized place to call our own was still to come. In that spirit, the organizing committee launched a few investigations of local business. The goal was to find a place that was not too big of a business, and where conditions were not so terrible that our members already working non-union, low-wage jobs wouldn’t want to salt (salting is getting hired with the goal of organizing), but where workers would be already a bit upset over their work conditions.

After asking around our friends, we decided to give Frite Alors a shot. One of our members went to work there and would report to us after a few months. Their report showed Frite Alors to be a suitable place to organize, and in fact an organizing committee was already close to being formed. At that point, a few more of us salted in with the help of the employees already inside.

Taking action

With our group of organizers on different shifts and different jobs (prep-cook, waitress, etc.) and the issues already identified, it would be only a few months before our organizing committee organized its first action: a march on the boss. We called the boss for a meeting, addressing the issue of stolen tips, and items stolen by customers being charged to workers (e.g. they would take a beer from the refrigerator without telling their server), among other problems.

On the day of the action, out of three organizers, one was on another job, and one was violently sick, but the last one was able to march with two other coworkers. It might seem like a small delegation, but because of their seniority of the workers involved (this was an important aspect of legitimacy all throughout the campaign), the boss backed down on the stolen tips issue and on some of the other items. A first quick and easy victory to build on to expand and push forward.

But the issues weren’t solved completely, so we used a good old fashioned petition to put the rest back on the table, with a plan for what was to happen next. The petition was a huge success: every worker signed it, EVEN the owner’s own son.

Boss retaliation and worker response

The retaliation that came next was expected: two waitresses were called to a disciplinary meeting with the owner and two managers.

Two hours before that meeting, another meeting for workers only took place in a café nearby, this one organized by our soon-to-be union. Everyone attended, except managers and the owner’s son. In this meeting, we gave each other arguments to make to the bosses — one each, so everyone would talk, making no easy targets. We assigned ourselves places to sit and a code word to say if we needed all to leave.

When the meeting with the bosses started, it was ours. We maintained control. No discipline took place, management didn’t say a word, while the owner tried to defend himself, really uneasy during the whole thing. He even said at one point, with an awkward laugh, “It really looks like a union-management meeting hahaha!” Little did he know.

We pushed him until he gave up, at which point everybody left, without giving them the time to regroup. The workforce then went to a local pub (meetings in pubs aren’t great, we plead guilty on that one, but post-victory meetings in a pub aren’t so bad) to debrief and plan, at which point a coworker said “so then, why not wages next?”

Going public

And so we decided to take on wages. But to do that, we needed to go public. We did some other actions and won some other stuff (air conditioners, for example), but wages seemed too big to do without public and external support. So the campaign went public.

During a shift change, workers left their positions, grabbed union caps and rushed outside for a picture with a local newspaper. A letter of demands was delivered and posters were placed by IWW members all over the neighborhood, joking “Congratulations to Frite Alors on their new union!” We also called journalists, making the union at Frite Alors a topic in the newspapers the very next day.

But the day after going public, the boss’s sanctions began with the firing of an employee – the original organizer of the campaign. Thanks to the branch, we were able to mobilize an occupation “sur un dix cennes” like we say. The police were called. Someone – either the police, or the owner’s lawyer – advised the owner to consider what we were demanding: the rehiring of the worker. Three hours later, the worker-organizer was rehired.

A contract

The organizing campaign was strengthened by this branch mobilization, and by the support of local celebrities: a bunch showed up to complain, or did YouTube videos. We also did intense flyering throughout the neighborhood, and had a strong presence on social media. All of this forced the employer to negotiate. “You did too much damage to our image,” he said.

A few months of bargaining later, an agreement was reached. We achieved all of our objectives for improved working conditions, including raises. The owner wanted us to sign a contract, to have some kind of assurance for himself. The contract guaranteed the work conditions we wanted, in exchange for not disrupting work again, and not unionizing the other Frite Alors locations. We were too tired to fight about not signing the contract, plus we knew it could be invalidated later because the clause about not unionizing other locations was illegal. So we signed.

We did have one loss. Another union organizer – and salt – was fired for a bogus reason and wasn’t rehired. The long bargaining process, in a low season with coworkers and organizers being burned out, meant we didn’t have the strength to rise up again and push for that person to be rehired. We feared risking the campaign “for a salt.” This was a factor of division in ourselves and probably the biggest low point of the campaign.

A short-lived shop with enduring lessons

The first public campaign of the Montreal branch was a success. Employees still in the shop were granted salary increases, sick leave, and guaranteed hours. Colleagues developed social and class consciousness and, for the first time in their lives, came into contact with syndicalism and liked what they saw: solidarity and power in the face of a terrified employer. Organizers were invited to many panels on trade unionism, articles on the IWW were published in “mainstream” newspapers, and some people joined the Montreal branch now that there was proof that the IWW method can work.

Some of those very people are now the backbone of the union here, and others organized the next public campaign of IWW Montréal, the STTMAE.

After just over a year, the Frite Alors union was gone from the original location, as the members had all left for other jobs, which is typical in the industry. The campaign also failed to snowball in other franchises of the company due to a lack of experienced external organizers, although that might not be the same the next time something like this happens here, since our branch organizing committee is now bigger, more experienced.

However, members recruited through this campaign are still active in the union. Campaigns that relied on the example of Frite Alors union are still active, and a significant barrier was broken by this first public experience.