In March 2018, motivated in large part by a pattern of bounced paychecks, the workers in four locations of the Smiling Goat cafe chain in Halifax, Nova Scotia voted to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Workers at two other Smiling Goat locations have been unionized since 2013 and 2015, when those cafes—then under the ownership of the Just Us! cafe chain—were part of a barista unionizing campaign that mobilized young, progressive activists and called attention to the employment crisis facing millennial workers.
Unlike more well-known activist movements in which millennials have played an important role, such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Dreamers, the Halifax barista union drives focus specific attention on millennials’ experience in the workforce and within the labor movement. And with good reason: millennials are engaged in an economy in which there has been poor median compensation growth since the mid-1980s. And yet, only 5-10% of millennials belong to unions—a factor linked to higher wages and better benefits—despite their support for organized labor and a slight uptick in union drives in workplaces with younger workers.
As Meaghan Dalton and I wrote recently, what was unique and important about the Halifax barista unionizing drives was that they were led mainly by women and LGBTQ workers for whom the general challenges of the precarious employment context were exacerbated by gender-based discrimination, harassment, and marginalization. For example, women spoke of unequal treatment and work assignments. Transgender baristas noted awkward and discriminatory treatment by customers, managers, and staff, as well as the difficulty of finding and changing jobs. It was not surprising, in these baristas’ analysis, that gender queer workers were at the bottom of the working class. The leaders of these drives turned to the SEIU because they thought that belonging to a union could make a positive difference in their employment experience. As one movement leader put it, “there’s not really many [employment] options, but [does] this option also need to be as bad as it is?” Supported by the SEIU, the Baristas Rise Up campaign raised awareness of the baristas’ experiences and mobilized local progressive activist networks and the public behind them. Ultimately, baristas at three of five targeted Halifax cafes voted to unionize.
This case illustrated clearly that issues of identity cannot be neatly separated from economic issues as traditionally understood. As such, Dalton and I argued that it is important for the labor movement to take an intersectional approach, viewing the experiences of workers—and, hence, their motivation for organizing—as crucially linked to their membership in different groups.
While the specific identity aspects of the Halifax baristas’ organizing drive may be unique, their case confirmed some of the obstacles to Millennials’ labour organizing that have been noted by others. For example, given declining rates of unionization, millennial workers do not necessarily know a lot about unions or have experience in the labor movement. The Halifax leaders got their start through personal connections in the SEIU who helped the barista leaders learn the ropes of organizing. It is incumbent on organized labor to reach out to millennial workers and empower them as labor organizers. Unions have come under criticism for being slow to organize young workers, despite precarious employment in the low wage service sector. Although unions are focusing more organizing attention on millennial workers, even one SEIU organizer noted of the Halifax barista union drives, when there is no guarantee of success, “how much resources do we want to put into this campaign in hopes that it will continue to spread?” Additionally, labor laws, procedural requirements, and outright intimidation make unionization difficult. Even when unionization is successful, workers and their unions cannot control the market: in Halifax, four of the five cafes involved in the barista union drives closed or were sold.
The challenges of unionization suggest the importance of alternative organizing models through which millennials can participate in the labor movement. The “$15 and Fairness” campaign in Ontario is one such model. Specifically, $15 and Fairness is a coalition of union and non-union labor activists, health providers, faith groups, campus communities, and migrant workers groups. The coalition took advantage of the provincial government’s call for a “Changing Workplaces Review” to advocate for provincial legislation that would address six key demands: a $15 minimum wage, paid sick days, labor protections and rights for all employees, fair scheduling practices, the right to organize and unionize, and respectful workplaces.
Millennials and young workers have been critical to the $15 and Fairness campaign. Campus organizing networks at 14 post-secondary institutions have used awareness raising activities, days of action, lobbying efforts, and strike support to draw attention to the shared work experiences of members of the campus community—low wages, precarious work, poor working conditions, and Islamophobia and other forms of harassment and discrimination. These activities have allowed the networks to build solidarity among students, full- and part-time faculty, and custodial and food service workers. Off campus, unionized and non-unionized millennial workers have used grassroots organizing and face-to-face outreach around the province to call attention to the need for decent work for low wage workers.
Unions are important for millennial workers, like the Halifax baristas, who want a collective voice in the workplace that will allow them to negotiate better wages, benefits, and working conditions. However, in a political and economic climate where there are significant obstacles to unionization, campaigns like $15 and Fairness create other important avenues for millennial activists to become involved in a more inclusive labor movement. Such campaigns expand the labor movement beyond unionized workers; acknowledge the experiences of workers from marginalized groups, like transgender, indigenous, young, and immigrant/migrant workers; and build coalitions to demand legislation that supports decent work for all.