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Matchstick’s Yaletown location struggles to get as much business as it did before the pandemic.

Vancouver coffee shop workers push to unionize amid COVID-19 pandemic

Workers and union representatives begin collective bargaining after first-ever online unionization vote.

By Austin Westphal , in City , on January 13, 2021

Workers at one of Vancouver’s hippest coffee chains recently voted in overwhelming favour of joining United Food and Commercial Workers in a first-ever online unionization vote.

Following the B.C. Labour Relations Board vote held on Sept. 3, select workers and union representatives are now in the collective bargaining process with Matchstick employers. If successful, employees across Matchstick’s five locations would be among the first coffee shops in the city to do so.

“I think the staff at Matchstick shows that cafe workers can organize and that there’s a process to do it,” said UFCW 1518 secretarytreasurer Patrick Johnson.

Patrick Johnson is secretary-treasurer at UFCW 1518. Photo: Courtesy of UFCW 1518.

Since opening its first Fraser Street-area shop in 2012, Matchstick has surged to the forefront of Vancouver’s growing community-based coffee scene. Unlike most corporate chains, Matchstick employees roast their own coffee, bake their own bread and source local ingredients.

The company symbolizes a new kind of coffee experience — one that promotes engagement and sustainability. Workers, on the other hand, have found their experience to be anything but.

Issues at the coffee shop first surfaced with the Not Our Matchstick Instagram page last summer. There, employees shared stories of a toxic and abusive environment fostered by former co-owner and co-founder Spencer Viehweger.

This is when the local branch of UFCW contacted workers as part of their Café Workers United campaign. Additional grievances like low wages, lack of paid sick days and anti-harassment policies made a compelling case for unionization.

UBC economics professor and labour union expert W. Craig Riddell says that unionization in the service sector is difficult. Organizing costs unions money and small workforces, like the roughly 30 at Matchstick, drive up cost per employee. This often shifts organizing responsibilities to workers.

“The combination of small organizations, high turnover and part-time work all work against unionization in the service sector,” he said.

The pandemic only created additional challenges for workers leading the effort. They could not meet face-to-face with union representatives nor among themselves. Instead text messages, phone calls and video chats replaced what would normally be in-person meetings.

“It was a grind,” said union secretarytreasurer Johnson.

Indoor seating at Matchstick Yaletown remains limited due to provincial social-distancing guidelines.

After the vote, workers signed union cards for a trial period lasting for 12 months. They are seeking access to birth control, discrimination training, guaranteed job security, diversity within hiring and paid skill enhancement. Employees are also proposing staff meals covered up to $10.50 for full shifts and $6.00 for half shifts. Paid sick and mental-health days are a priority at the bargaining table, with employees hoping to get a total of four per quarter.

A company representative says managers are there to listen and help.

“I’m here to work with the union and with our team members to make sure that they’ve got a safe, positive, nurturing environment to come to work at everyday,” said Matchstick’s operations manager Cameron Shearer.

Despite financial hardship at the company, employers and union representatives remain optimistic that they can negotiate a contract. Shearer says he wants what’s best for his team and admires his worker’s passion.