An organizing dilemma

Clarence worked at a vegan restaurant in Montreal for ten years as a line cook and expeditor, before leaving last month. While there, he participated in an organizing campaign, first with the IWW, then with the CSN – Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux, the second-largest trade union confederation in Quebec. Once the union was certified, Clarence was elected to the bargaining committee and helped negotiate their first collective agreement, in June 2018.

A dilemma often arises among workers in grassroots organizing campaigns, whether to pursue formal recognition and a contract, or eschew that for direct action tactics and solidarity unionism. The argument generally goes: mainstream unions are bureaucratic and manage campaigns top-down, but on the other hand, solidarity unionism is too energy-intensive for workers, and contracts make for more stable gains. What is interesting about this case is that workers pivoted to a legal strategy, working with a union that allowed them complete democratic control over their own campaign, but soon found themselves burnt out by the volume of work involved in defending the collective agreement. Moreover, the legal process proved ineffective in resolving grievances.

While there are no easy answers to this dilemma, looking at different workers’ experience can be instructive.

Interview by Marianne Garneau. Image © moominsean, 2009 | Flickr

Tell me about the campaign. How did it start?

There were a bunch of IWW members in the workplace, about seven people, all working in the kitchen. Out of 75 people in the workplace.

They did a bunch of actions. They started meeting with more people. That’s the point where I came in.

There was a petition action, and it kind of died. People wanted to send a petition – I don’t remember what it was asking exactly. It was more of a respect thing. But there were some clear demands. In the end, people chickened out of the action, so it did not happen. And I think a lot of frustration came from that cancellation of the action.

At one point it got pretty obvious that you need the front-of-house staff, in a restaurant. We wanted to go full union [wall-to-wall], but the front staff were not into the more radical ideas of the wobs.

I get the impression that the wobs in the kitchen were more subcultural…

Yes. Kitchen was fuckups and Anglos [English-speaking]. People who need a job where they can speak English. Radicals, punks.

What were the demographics of the front staff?

More French, and students.

Also because of the gigantic turnover, it got really – training wobs is way longer than just signing a card for a union. We were losing people faster than we were gaining people. That’s why we went for a more mainstream union – the CSN. But all the wobs were still involved so it was more of a dual-card campaign.

What is the CSN?

It’s a union central, like a big union. It’s really different from the Teamsters and stuff — it used to be a more radical union, like a Catholic left-wing thing back in the day. And their structure is very democratic and decentralized. You get in the CSN, but then you have your local union, and it makes all its own decisions. And the central helps you do that. But it’s not like there are people who are paid to be your union representative.

Did they have paid staff to help with your campaign?

CSN had a staff member with us the whole time, who would advise us on negotiations. And they also had a mobilization staff member [outside organizer], and a lawyer. So there were three staff members. But we didn’t really use the mobilization staff member because [we already organized people with] the IWW method.

Once we had a collective agreement, you have to get it to be respected, and if the boss doesn’t respect it, you have to do the legal stuff. And all of this, the members have to do. The CSN will tell you how to do it, but you have to do it.

How did you make the decision to go with the CSN?

We went around and met different unions and decided which one we wanted – we voted on it. At this point we were still a really small group. And then we reached out to the rest of the restaurant.

What did the outreach look like?

With the CSN method, you have a card that you have to get people to sign, and they have to give you $2. It’s mainly the same technique, you note all the people who work in the workplace, you evaluate whether they are for the union or not, then you meet everyone in order of [who you] trust [the most], and get them to sign a card.

Who was doing that?

Everyone. At this point we were seven [committee members]. We just divided the list.

Just those back-of-house people?

No. By the time the CSN was contacted, there were one or two people in front staff who knew about the union, but they didn’t want to go with the IWW.

People wanted a collective agreement. Because the IWW method, it works if you have lots of members in the workplace, but if you have high turnover, if you don’t have a collective agreement, as soon as you stop fighting, the boss takes back everything.

Right now the boss is just pushing the limits and tiring everyone out with fighting. They just harass people out. Being a bullshit boss. Like, “You can’t play music in the kitchen.” Just making your job shit so you leave.

So even though you have a collective agreement, the boss is still fighting the union?


Tell me how you went from outreach to collective agreement.

This was a full year of fighting. We did the outreach. That got done in like three days.

People were eager to sign cards?

Oh yeah, 97% of people signed. The only ones who didn’t were the ones we didn’t approach.

Why did they sign?

Because the boss is an asshole. The front staff had to show up in advance without getting paid, they weren’t getting their proper hours, there was sexual harassment that managers would ignore. All the usual. Restauration is a shit industry. And because there is a high turnover, people accept it, but if you ask them if they want to be treated better, they say yes.

What happened next?

In Quebec, the way it works, you need 50% of the workers to agree to the union. The boss didn’t know the high percentage we had. They thought it was only the punks in the kitchen. They never realized what shitty bosses they were, so they never realized people were for the union. Once we got the union, they had a restaurant and a factory as well, so they tried to say all the employees were one big business, so the factory people, you need to have them sign as well. The boss’s intention was to have so many people that the union would get voted out.

Did you know about the factory?

Yes because at one point they were downstairs in the kitchen. But then they relocated to another place.

Had you thought of reaching out to those workers too?

Yes but the turnover is really, really high. At the beginning of the union, everyone was on the same company Facebook page for scheduling, and we had email lists. That’s how we reached people. But at one point we lost all that access. The boss changed it for another one that we had less access to [contact information]. And some of the people at the factory quit or got fired. We lost our contacts there. The employers worked really hard to separate everyone — while they were in court saying we were one happy family.

Did they win that argument?

No, the judge ridiculed them. So they lost a lot of money and a lot of time. But bosses go for the long-run. They just want to get rid of the union.

Was the union recognized through card check or did you have an election?

They never had [an election].

So you have card check certification in Quebec?

Yes but you never show it to the employer. You show it to the government.

I think in May the employer can challenge the union. They can say, “We don’t think you have enough members.” The turnover is so high. If you work there for one year, you’re going to meet 100 people.

Are you still signing people up with the CSN? IWW?

Every time there is a new employee, they have to sign up with CSN. At the end, after six months, I was the only one with an IWW membership.

I was a delegate for my CSN local. You don’t really meet other CSN members.

How did you get your collective agreement?

After a year of negotiations. And we were doing actions — all the system of negotiations was really IWW-inspired. I was a pretty active member of the IWW at this point, so I was on a bunch of committees, and we did all of our stuff like that.

Our communication was better than the bosses’. They always talk in the 101, when you plan an action, you prepare your people for what’s going to happen — inoculation. That’s not in the CSN culture, but it’s really in the IWW culture. We used this a lot: “this manager is going to react like this.” That really helped us.

What kind of actions did you take?

The first ones were people wearing pins. The boss came to us and told us not to wear the pins. And we had threats ready. We were wearing CSN scarves. Then the kitchen stopped wearing their uniforms. At one point the IWW was doing a lot of fake customers — sending emails saying “support your workers.” The employers didn’t know it was [organized by] us.

Were there any work stoppages?

At one point we had a strike vote of 100%. Late during negotiations. So we were ready to strike, and we had the vote, and they gave us what we wanted, and we [relented]. But we should have struck.


They should be afraid of the union. And now, because we didn’t strike, they feel like we were bluffing all along. Like, there were no real consequences.

Did you run any IWW organizer trainings?

We tried to put one together but it never happened.

What’s in collective agreement?

We used to be really uneven — women would be treated really differently. Guys were having higher wages. So things got more equal. There are now some people who you would never thought would become a supervisor (because not an old white man) who became supervisors.

Salary augmentation for everyone, uniforms. Free food. More protection. The main thing was becoming more even. And the front changed a lot. Before that, the law was not even respected. Just the boss starting to respect the law was a big thing.

What happened after you got your collective agreement?

That’s when we hit the limits of the legalized [union strategy]. If you have a violation of the collective agreement, if they [the bosses] don’t respect it, you have to do a grievance. But those things take like six months or a year. But in the restauration industry, there is really high turnover, so people do a grievance, but they leave before it’s done. So like the boss just takes advantage of that.

Can you give me an example?

So in scheduling, they don’t respect the collective agreement. And someone says “I should have got that shift, and the boss gave it to this other guy who he likes better.” But if they [the employee] want to make a grievance, they have to do this official thing: first the boss gets informed, and they might just say “oh I’m not disrespecting the collective agreement.” [So you go to court.] But the court thing is a year long.

But if you do direct action it’s much faster.

So is the grievance process mediated by the government?


Have you filed any grievances?

A lot of them.

What have been the results?

The first ones we did are still in action. There was the one that got resolved immediately, but the other ones are still not resolved.

Why did that one get resolved immediately?

Well at one point, right after the collective agreement, we were still a very aggressive union, so we said, “If you don’t respect this, we’re going to do direct action.” So then the boss fixed the problem, because they were afraid. But then people were tired of fighting, so that’s when you get fucked.

What are your thoughts on CSN?

At the beginning, I really liked their system. All people get to be involved, and you really control your union, so if you want to be really leftwing, they will let you do it. But because we have to do the work ourselves, people just got tired.

Tell me more the CSN’s structure, and your bargaining.

The first thing we did once we had a union, we had a first general assembly, and we had elections. There were six positions: president, treasurer, secretary, vice-president kitchen, vice-president floor, and vice-president front staff. This was the executive committee. We also elected a negotiating committee of three people. I was VP-kitchen, and on the negotiating committee. The negotiating committee answered to the executive committee, and the executive committee answered to the general assembly [of all workers].

The negotiating committee were the people who were mandated to negotiate the collective agreement. We were negotiating part by part. At the second general assembly, we were asking people what they wanted out of this. And every time, when we had questions — “the boss is offering us this and this, are you guys cool with it?” — because of social media, we could ask people live.

And then once you got your contract?

Because it was a new collective agreement, there was so much work to do, to enforce it. The woman who was president almost burnt out. She was doing so many tasks. All the responsibility she had was so high, it was really hard. Because you are doing this on your spare time.

There are 75 people [staff] and all have different start dates, and each makes a different amount of hours, so when there’s a new schedule, there’s 75 possibilities of the collective agreement not being respected. So you have to double-check all of them. The collective agreement says that if an employee doesn’t show up, you have to follow some order to replace that employee. But you have to find who didn’t show up… When someone comes with a grievance, you have to check the whole thing.

Was employer violating the agreement on purpose?

A part of me thinks they were doing it on purpose. Definitely some of the times they were. At the restaurant there’s a really long chain of command. I don’t know why. There’s a big ladder of managers. Some of them are just brown-nosers and not good. So it’s hard for them to read and respect those rules because they are idiots. The lack of competency of the employer was also a big — it would have been easier to get the collective agreement respected if we had been dealing with competent people.

We also had problems maintaining our executive committee, because of the turnover. Now the CSN has a new strategy, where they would give some of the executive committee.

Do you have any advice for others looking to organize in the restaurant industry?

It’s hard because of turnover. The industrial way of the wobs, in the long term, might be a better solution. It should be: every restaurant worker in one neighborhood should be in the same union, and if you fuck with one worker you’re fucking with all the groups. Right now people don’t fight, because it’s like, I could fight through the union, or just go to another restaurant. Because there are so many jobs. In 12 hours you can have a new job. So people are lazy about the fight and they just leave, which is bad for the union.

Any thoughts about the legal strategy versus direct action?

I think the legal strategy is more easy to convince people to do, because there is less risk involved. But the direct action strategy is faster and more effective, more efficient. With direct action, they [the bosses] can’t just buy their way out. With legal action they can. They can just wait us out. But with direct action, they have to make a remedy now. The legal stuff is too slow for an industry that goes so fast.

How do you get workers to take direct action?

I guess they need to be ready. It’s really hard to get people mobilized all of the time. With direct action, you need a lot of people to be involved and to participate.

And yet you were saying that your executive got burnt out from fighting the boss, just a few people having to manage the contract, on their own time.

And you were fighting against people who were getting paid to do that! If you’re going to do the legal route, you need those people to be paid to do that stuff.