Mainstream labour's best kept secret
The Swiss Chalet Workers - Mainstream labour's best kept secret
Organizing restaurant workers has been a source of ongoing frustration and disappointment for unions across North America. Although little pockets of unionized restaurant workers exist here and there, no one has yet managed to break into the large chain operations that serve millions and exploit hundreds of thousands. In Canada, attempts by various unions to organize chains like McDonalds have fallen flat. Difficulties associated with organizing large numbers of geographically dispersed locations; high staff turnover and aggressive anti-union campaigns by the employers are often cited as reasons for organized labour's lack of success in the restaurant biz.
There is, however, one large restaurant chain that is unionized from coast to coast in Canada and has been for the past two decades. Swiss Chalet Restaurants are a chain of franchised eateries under the corporate umbrella of Cara Operations limited, a large Canadian food service conglomerate involved in airline and institutional catering, airport restaurants and bars, and fast food. Cara's Swiss Chalet division is a big player on the Canadian restaurant scene. WWW.CARA.COM reports the division as having "$363 million sales; 181 restaurants, of which 145 are franchised; over 8,400 operating associates and teammates serving over 40 million guests a year.".
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union represent the majority of Swiss Chalet workers. In Ontario, the hub of Swiss Chalet's operations, UFCW Local 206 is the bargaining agent for some 70 Swiss Chalet Restaurants in Ontario alone. These are covered by a master collective agreement with Cara Operations and the various franchise owners. The UFCW acquired bargaining rights for most of these stores in 1996 when it merged with the union that held bargaining rights for them at the time, an independent called the Canadian Union of Restaurant and Related Employees (CURRE). There is evidence, however, that the UFCW's involvement with the chain goes back much earlier - to the mid 1980's when it acquired bargaining rights for a dozen or so locations.
Having all (or most) of a large and successful restaurant chain's operations sewn up under one collective agreement would seem to be the dream of any union with its eye on the service industry. What incredible leverage a province wide unit would provide at the negotiating table and what an opportunity to trail-blaze in an industry that has taken pride in its ability to keep unions out. One might think that the UFCW would be very vocal about its remarkable "in" in the industry. One might even think that the entire mainstream labour movement would be taking great interest in the Swiss Chalet workers - using this lone but large outpost as a beachhead for further organizing in the restaurant industry. One might think these things but one would be wrong.
Despite their remarkable position as a large unionized group within a non-union industry, little is said - in fact, little is known - about the Swiss Chalet workers. WWW.UFCW.CA says nothing about them except for a brief reference to its merger with their previous union in 1996. Local 206 has no web presence at all and a search of the Internet fails to turn up a news releases or other information about the 4,000 UFCW members who work for the large high-profile restaurant chain. Even the literature of the mainstream labour movement, filled to overflowing with information about the sad plight of non-union restaurant workers, makes no mention of them.
Fortunately, the public record is rich in information about these workers and their most unusual history. That history is of high relevance to the labour movement, union reformers and most of all, to service industry workers.
Over the next several weeks, we will lift the curtain on one of Canadian mainstream labour's best-kept secrets.
Here's a little something to whet your appettite: Mystery Union Organizes Swiss Chalets.
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This is a good topic. I believe it probably relates to an incident or series of incidents that led to a power grab by a now shadowy figure who haunts the house of labour.
I was asked by Cliff Evans to Trustee a BC Local of the Canadian Union of Restaurant and Related Employees. That local was certified to represent two BC Swiss Chalets. Apparently, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 40 had a deal with CURRE to service the Swiss Chalets, but they had a falling out with CURRE, so they were raiding the Swiss Chalets.
I remember the HERE guy telling me to back off and if Cliff Evans was still in power, I would be called off in an instant. I had a good chuckle. If the goon only knew that it was Cliff that ordered me to do the job.
Eventually, CURRE became part of the UFCW. Yup, this will be a good story. If there are any blanks, I'll help you fill them in.
This promises to be very interesting indeed. A whole restaurant chain organized? It is very odd that nothing is ever said about these workers in mainstream circles. Very odd.
Tell me something HJ, how is it that the UFCW was able to "trustee" CURRE? They were two separate unions weren't they?
[ 09-20-2001: Message edited by: remote viewer ]
Oh, it wasn't the UFCW trusteeing the CURRE Local. I was asked by Cliff to act as a Trustee on behalf of CURRE. In effect, I was taking orders from Bill Whyte, CURRE's president. Gib knew all about it and ok'd my involvement.
Maybe I just don't get out enough but I thought that to act as a trustee, you were supposed to hold some kind of official position with the union imposing the trusteeship? Were you an official of CURRE or is this some kind of innovative rent-a-trustee concept?
asked by Cliff Evans to Trustee a BC Local of the Canadian Union of Restaurant and Related Employees.
In what capacity? What does one do when one is 'trustee' of a local?
Trustees have a great deal of power. Once a local is placed in trusteeship, the parent union removes the local's executive (fires them is a more accurate way of putting it) and effectively takes over the operation of the local directly. The trustee is the parent union's representative who is designated to step in and run the local until such time as an election can be held (sometimes that can be a very long time). The trustee has all the powers of the executive but no accountability to anyone but the parent union. The trustee has control over the local's treasury, can decide to hire and fire staff, can negotiate collective agreements, settle grievances, all kinds of stuff.
Trustees are usually chosen from among those very close to the parent union's leadership. They are people who the parent union trusts implicitly (because of the power they have at the trusteed local). That's why I was surprised that HJ was parachuted in from the UFCW as a trustee for a completely separate union. I would have assumed that the CURRE President would have appointed one of his right-hand guys to do the job. I'm very curious now as to what was going on between Cliff Evans and this Bill Whyte, President of CURRE. You don't just send one of your staff in as some other union's trustee out of the goodness of your heart (especially with a raid by another CLC-affiliated union going on). Oh well, maybe we'll find out in due course of time.
At any rate, having heard this I can say one thing for very sure. Finnamore had to be A1 in Evans' books to get an assignment like this. The machineheads can say what they want now but you wouldn't be assigned to do this kind of special favour for the boss of another union unless you were very highly thought of by the top brass.
[ 09-20-2001: Message edited by: remote viewer ]
Trustees have a great deal of power
Trustees are usually chosen
That sucks too!
very highly thought of
Still by many!
That trustees have a great deal of power can and does suck, as you say. In fact, trustees have been known to be used by the biz-unions as a means of keeping control over locals and preventing them from being taken over by reformers and others who refuse to tow the official party line.
The official reason for trusteeship is that something has gone very wrong at the local and needs to be set right. For example, money is being stolen, terrible contracts are being signed, members are being sold down the river - that kind of stuff - and certainly trusteeships have been imposed for those reasons. But they are also used to depose local executives that are considered dangerous or undesirable by the brass. This is another reason why those who are selected as trustees are only those who are held in high regard by the brass. Not only are they entrusted with a great deal of power but they have to be counted on to do the bidding of headquarters without question. There is another prerequisite: they have to be intelligent. They need to be able to carry out their marching orders and to operate quietly and diplomatically. For instance, they may need to reassure the members that the parent union has their best interests at heart while showing their elected representatives the door, to field any inquiries from the local media, to deflect negative attention from the trusteeship. For this reason, the "trustee" job isn't just given to any garden-variety International Rep. The last thing the parent union wants is some guy with big-ego-small-brain complex wading into a politically volatile situation and making a mess of things.
I've been thinking that the UFCW's sending Finnamore in to act as a trustee for CURRE was something that, apart from being unusual, was probably very important to them as well. Eventually, CURRE would go on to merge with the UFCW. The UFCW's involvement in the Trusteeship of this CURRE local was quite possibly a part of the courtship that inevitably precedes these marriages. That they entrusted him with this mission says a lot.
As the old expression goes: many are called but few are chosen. I suspect HJ was one of their rising stars. His defection provides us with a rare opportunity to visit the internal culture of the biz-unions, among other things.
I'm wondering HJ if you could tell us when it was that this unusual trusteeship happened - what year was it? Was it before or after Evans retired?
[ 09-21-2001: Message edited by: remote viewer ]
An even bigger question is, "Did Evans ever really retire?"
The trusteeship happened in '92 during a raid by HERE Local 40. Local 40 was paid to take care of the CURRE Swiss Chalet units in BC. CURRE had originally jumped in bed with HERE to escape a raid by Frank Benn, who was Cliff's co-Canadian Director at the time. Cliff took care of Region 19 and Frank took care of Region 18.
Anyway, CURRE was having a falling out with HERE. In fact, the CURRE/HERE commonlaw relationship was on the rocks. That's when CURRE started dating the UFCW. I belive my job was to protect the future UFCW assets in BC. I knocked off HERE in the raid in Victoria and lost the raid in Burnaby. That store decertified from HERE shortly thereafter.
Even after I was hired by the International, I continued to take care of the Swiss Chalet in Victoria. Their wages were so low that the UFCW gave them special dues of about $10 a month.
After the first contract was negotiated by me as Trustee, I was then told to sign the Swiss Chalet employees into Local 777, which I did in I belive the summer of '93.
Whether Evans was retired (officially) or not, his involvement in this trusteeship shows how important it was to the UFCW. If he was already "officially" retired at the time, however, it shows the extent to which he continued his involvement in the UFCW.
If the Swiss Chalet workers wages were so pitiful that the UFCW had to amend its dues structure for them once it signed them up, how did the workers do with the UFCW in their corner?
Hummmm...hold that thought for a min. HJ, I think I smell some chicken burning
Nope! What Scott smells is workers gettin' burned. When there were two unions representing Swiss Chalet (UFCW & CURRE), they always had the excuse that the "other" union always undercut them, so what could they do, but sign a shitty contract.
There's one union now, so what's the excuse?
If you look at a CAW White Spot contract, you'll see a huge difference. In fact I believe the CAW KFC agreements beat the Swiss Chalet Agreements. You'd think the UFCW would be trying to beat the CAW contracts, now wouldn't you?
Isn't "Von Ferst" European for "Me first"? That's an approprite name for some "union" leaders we know, isn't it?
Your "chicken man" story has the "four tops" spinning like never before. The rumour is that if your site was in French, the UFCW would be dead meat (no pun intended) in Quebec. Much of your stuff is being translated and distributed. What's really worrying them is that Local 501 could dissappear by February, and 61 International Blvd. is loaded with Anglos. who aren't much good in Quebec.
For those of you who can read French, check out the CSN site in Quebec:
Translation downloads are out there. Calling all techies...
[ 09-27-2001: Message edited by: Secret Agent ]
Here is a *rough* english translation of the CSN site: Google translation
As you can see, it is far from perfect, but for those of you who are hopelessly anglo like me, it is at least a start.
Unfortunately, it appears that Google does not offer translation in the other direction: English to French. However, I am sure that if you look around on the internet you may be able to find something. Of course, a quick read of the CSN translation reveals the limits of automated translation - the grammar gets massacred, and in the process the meaning often gets lost too.
Here's another idea, though. If there is anyone out there who wants to try and manually translate a particularly good article, why don't we start an "En Francais" forum to post helpful contributions like that?
[ 09-27-2001: Message edited by: globalize_this ]
I strikes me that, if indeed CURRE was a sweetheart, and the reasonable person in me is really leaning in that direction right now - that it differs from what we typcially conceive of as sweetheart unions (the employee association hatched in some plant manager's office and confined to one workplace).
If it was a sweetheart, then it was a highly sophisticated one. Right from its name to its nationwide scope to its highly undemocratic constitution. The campaign described in the article would also have required a high degree of coordination (not to mention funding). I can't help but wonder why the unions of the mainstream movement didn't raise a stink about it or seek to warn the workers of what was happening. I'm sure this organizing campaign didn't go unnoticed. OK, it seems that HERE did to so certain extent, but where were all the others? And where were th umbrella orgs like the CLC? Did they not realize the implications? What if this "union" spread throughout the service industry?
What's really noticable to an experienced labour relations person is that UFCW CAs always have language peculiar to the the UFCW. That is, different unions use different phrasing in their CAs. One usually finds similar phrasing within a particular union's bargaining area.
That being said, it's absolutely remarkable that the CURRE Swiss Chalet and UFCW Swiss Chalet CAs used to be mirrored copies of each other.
CURRE was a rag-tag little runt of a union and the UFCW, who bills itself as "The Voice of Working America" and as the largest and most powerful union in North America, just seemed to accept whatever the runt bargained with the employer. The dog let the tail do the bargaining. The tail set the flea-infested mongrel standard for the dog.
Now that the dog has effectively swallowed its tail, what do Swiss Chalet and Harvey's CAs look like today?
A review of the the current UFCW Local 206 collective agreement (1998 - 2001) covering Swiss Chalet workers in Ontario and an agreement CURRE negotiated for these workers for the period 1981 - 1984, discloses:
The language of the two agreements is virtually identical. It appears that 1998 UFCW agreement replicates the 1981 CURRE agreement for the most part.
The 1998 UFCW agreement has a two tier wage scale. The 1981 CURRE agreement didn't.
The 1998 UFCW agreement has a two tier wage scale. The 1981 CURRE agreement didn't
UFCW .. always the innovator!
There seems to be alot of 'Best kept secrets'.
All over the ufcw 1518 site is reference to all the bargaining/negotiations going on .. except for the Save-on gas stations.
Why have they not kept the Power Source up to snuff about the negotiations regarding gas stations?
The Gas station agreement expired in 2000.
The Save-on gas stations are just as absent from the employers site Save-on-Foods 'cept for honorable mention regarding the enviroment. The company boasts about their other additions, like pharmacies and natural foods etc., but nothing about gas stations. Gas stations are conspicuously absent.
Save-on gas stations and Changes the other voluntary 'wreck' addition to 1518, are barely visible to the 'naked eye'.
Both these 'voluntary wreck' Save-on-Foods' additions have unique contracts, are serviced by the same reps as the Save-on stores, and are certainly 1518 territory .. hmmmmm!
Why won't they talk about it?
[ 09-30-2001: Message edited by: siggy ]
Re: Swiss Chalet Workers Part 2
As much as what CURRE and its leader did was appalling, somebody please tell me how it differs from what the business unions of today are doing? This guy Whyte was an opportunist but what did the business unions do about it? They lined up to kiss his butt and follow in his footsteps.
[ 10-12-2001: Message edited by: remote viewer ]
Hell, he built up a nice little business and then in effect sold it to the UFCW. Did anything change with the sale? That is, the the contracts get better with the huge bargaining power of the UFCW? Not from what I've seen. They seem to have gotten worse.
What's up here?
It's called cultural compatability. They have the same values so they achieve the same outcomes for their Power Source.
Re: Part 3
After reading about the UFCW's organizing campaign, it's pretty clear that it is definitely not impossible to organize restaurant workers under even the most hostile conditions. Unions should be putting this campaign under a microscope and studying it to see how the UFCW was able to achieve such a stunning success in such a short period of time.
Why has this story been buried all this time? There seems to be a lot that can be learned from it.
Part 3 was very well writen and I applaud it's author. I can't wait for the final chapter.
Well written? Equaled only by part one and two ... this is better than 'Survivor' and has much the same theme for the Power Source.
Kevin Corporon .. didn't he sing with the sunshine boys?
Organizing 30 restaurants,
It would go on to apply for a total of 29 restaurants
What happened to the 30th one? (Did I lose track?)
the UFCW was in a relatively good position. It had uncovered an ugly scheme to deprive workers of their rights
They had uncovered an ugly scheme to deprive workers of their rights? Hmmm! You don't say!
The 'UFCW Honest Union' pdf was especially entertaining as well.
[ 10-27-2001: Message edited by: siggy ]
Re: Part 4
Sure sounds like a sell out to me. In the very least the UFCW should have allowed the workers to vote or for the OLRB to process the applications. What compelled them to cave into to HERE like they seem to have done?
Hey, I have an idea. Some of the people who were involved in this campaign are still around. Kevin Corporon, who seemed to have been in charge of the UFCW's campaign is ruling at Local 1000a - maybe we should ask him what happened. Kevin Benn (who I believe is Frank Benn's son) works there as well - maybe he could tell us something. Then of course there's Cliff Evans - I wonder if he could shed some light on the what took place.
What do you think? Do these guys owe the community of workers some answers?
They are out of the office until the end of the IFEB holiday in Hawaii. Only us grunts are left at home to tend to the members. Hey, come to think of it, we're the only ones who tend to the members anyway!!!
I hope they all had a nice time in Hawaii. Here's a bit of history to welcome all the vacationing officials back. I thought it would be good to post it in this tread because this is something that happened during the same period of time as the Swiss Chalet Workers got "settled". This is a much better known sell-out, the one the involved the workers at the Hormel plant in Minnesota.
The Hormel case is a well-documented sell out and a lot has been written about it (the excerpt at the link is from a very good book about what happened there).
Were the Swiss Chalet workers sold out? Well, what Hormel shows us is that such things were not unheard of for the UFCW by the mid-1980's.
And oh, but isn't the grocery business a tough enterprise to run in a recession? I'll bet Safeway is doing real just as bad as Loblaws.
Too bad Loblaws' workers won't have an opportunity to ask for improvements to their bottom lines until 2006(!) thanks to the stupendous deal Local 1000a brought home last year.
Of course Loblaw's has been raking it in for years. This must be why 1000a's head honcho Kevin Corporon signed a 6 year contract with walloping wage increases of about 1% in each year last summer. I guess Loblaws consistent profitability and a strike of about 90% weren't reason enough to push for more.
That's quite a story. All these CLC nit wits keep telling the world that food-service workers are better off with a union, but the UFCW/CURRE story doesn't back those assertions up.
You'll notice that the CLC falls silent about the plight of Swiss Chalet workers. They talk about how much better off McDonalds employees would be if they had a union. They talk about how much better Wal-Mart employees would be with a union. The Swiss Chalet story backs up many people's claim that the Canadian labour movement is populated by a bunch of two-faced wind bags.
The CLC should be told, "try cleaning up the house of labour before you start inviting new people in." They should be told, "weed out the corruption before trying to sell the virtues of union membership."
[ 11-26-2001: Message edited by: weiser ]
It is getting very difficult to come up with words that best describe what the machines have done to the 'Labour Movement'!
Deplorable, condemnable, disgraceful, shameful, unfortunate, hardly cut it anymore!
blighting, cataclysmic, catastrophic, deadly, devastating, dire, disastrous, fatal, pernicious, ruinous, tragic, woeful, bhorrent, abominable, appalling, cringe-making, disgusting, distasteful, foul, horrible, horrid, loathsome, nasty, nauseating, nauseous, noisome, obnoxious, obscene, offensive, repellent, repugnant, repulsive, shocking, sickening, yucky, abhorrent, accursed, atrocious, base, contemptible, despicable, detestable, disgusting, execrable, foul, godawful
well you reap what you sew
What a travesty. It boggles the mind that the great leaders of the service industry unions have bungled this opportunity to establish a strong union presence in this highly profitable chain.
I keep searching for some plausible reason as to why a union would go backwards when its bargaining power increases in leaps and bounds. Hey, maybe the whole deplorable mess is the result of some unfortunate miscommunication. Maybe the biz-union honchos ordered their Canadian representatives to ensure that they bargain substantial increments for the restaurant workers. Due to an unfortunate typo however, the reps, accustomed to following orders from headquarters without question, have been diligently delivering large piles of excrement ever since.
Possible but unlikely. The excrement-heads are just doing what they do best. weiser, you forgot to include shameful in your list.
$5.95 an hour is one of the lowest minimum wages in Canada. Yet this is the wage the UFCW negotiated for wait staff in these restaurants and they don't get a raise (a lousy dime) for 2 years! Is the UFCW giving them a break from paying union dues and the initiation fee for 2 years? I bet not.