Striking students met with community support, new job offers before noon
At approximately 10 a.m. on Tuesday, July 27, employees of Wild Coffee in downtown Victoria began a workers strike, picketing outside the shop located at 632 Yates St. The four employees — two of them UVic students — allege withheld pay, staffing concerns, and poor working conditions as reasons for their strike. Workers say the owner, Marla Donaldson, has also been on a prolonged stay in Mexico, which they feel has resulted in the breakdown of effective communication, further motivating the strike.
Supported by the Vancouver chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and local labour organizers, the Wild Coffee employees set up signs outside the shop and began picketing the store. Shortly after the strike began, Donaldson’s son showed up and took away the employees’ keys.
The strike was set in motion a few weeks ago when the cafe’s employees — none of whom had worked at the coffee shop for longer than four months — reached out to the IWW. Employees allege that at that point one staff member had not been paid for 28 days, a violation of employment standards in B.C. which mandate wages be paid within eight days of the end of any given pay period.
With guidance from Kyle, a volunteer organizer with the IWW who declined to provide his last name to the Martlet, the employees set up a call with Donaldson on July 16 and demanded the outstanding wages be paid. The staff claim that they also listed a number of other grievances during the call, including dealing with unreliable and broken equipment and not receiving overtime pay for hours worked.
Employees say that Donaldson paid the outstanding wages and promised to address the employees’ other concerns the following Monday, July 19. Another week passed and staff allege that issues remained unresolved.
In response, the workers phoned Donaldson on the Tuesday morning of the strike, listed their grievances a second time, and informed her of their intention to strike.
“[Donaldson says] she still doesn’t believe that we’ve brought up our demands to her, which is really frustrating,” said Harper*, a Wild Coffee employee and UVic student studying elementary education.
While Donaldson did not reply to the Martlet’s request for comment in time for publication,in an interview with Victoria Buzz, she denied allegations of withheld pay and broken equipment. She also said she has been held up in Mexico due to travel restrictions and will be returning Thursday, July 29.
“I can’t believe what’s going on,” Donaldson told Vic Buzz. “I always pay my employees two weeks at a time, and these employees have only worked for me for two months.”
This isn’t the first labour action that’s taken place at Wild Coffee. In 2016, staff launched an action with support from the Victoria-based Workers Solidarity Network (WSN) because an employee was being paid less than minimum wage. According to Anna Gerrard, an organizer with the WSN, staff and supporters marched on the cafe in protest and arranged a “justice cafe” across the street as a fundraiser to reimburse the employee’s wages.
That staff member was eventually paid, but five years later, Wild Coffee employees have organized another labour action. Organizers and staff feel that the strike represents deeper issues with the power dynamics at play within the service industry.
Kyle, who came over from Vancouver to support the strike, emphasizes that terminating workers for union activity is illegal under B.C. labour law. Knowing these labour rights, he says, is rare.
“[Wild staff] didn’t know what their rights were around this,” he said. “We’re finding that’s incredibly common, across the whole spectrum.”
For Sam*, another employee, the systemic injustice surrounding labour issues is why organizing is so important.
“Without a strong labour movement, workers aren’t going to achieve the victories that they need in order to fight back against these injustices,” he said.
The cafe workers’ main goal with the strike is to raise community awareness of how staff are treated at Wild Coffee.
“We’re letting people know what’s been going on at this cafe for the past few months,” said Sam. “We have plenty of happy, regular customers who had no idea that we were being so mistreated as workers.”
The workers’ efforts to raise awareness have been met with an outpouring of community support and by 10:30 a.m. on the day of the strike all four staff members had received other job offers. Community members also joined the Wild Coffee employees and labour organizers outside the coffee shop to show support and brought the staff breakfast.
“The support from the community has been great, they’ve been very understanding,” said Harper.
As of Wednesday, the strike is still going strong.
“It’s going for as long as it takes,” said Sam.
*Due to fears of retribution, Wild Coffee employees have been identified with pseudonyms.