By CCU President Kelly Johnson
It all started three weeks ago.
Effective January 1, 2018, the minimum wage in Ontario increased to $14 an hour, a policy long overdue that will help tens of thousands of workers, or almost 12% of the province’s workforce who make the minimum wage, not to mention tens of thousands of others who make just above the minimum that will also see an increase in their incomes.
But in response, some employers moved to offset the increased wages by eliminating paid breaks or increasing workers’ contributions for benefits, including at nearly a dozen Tim Hortons restaurants throughout Ontario.
One of these outlets, located in Cobourg and partially owned by one of the children of Tim Horton, Jeri Horton-Joyce, sent a letter to employees asking them to sign a document acknowledging the loss of certain benefits, paid breaks and other incentives in response to the province’s minimum wage increase.
There’s just one (really big) problem with that: decades of employment law in Ontario clearly illustrate that any modification of an existing employment contract (whether union-based or not) is only legally enforceable if both sides agree to the changes, and both sides receive something new of value in the exchange.
Yet this goes beyond the iconic coffee chain, with minimum wage workers at other businesses being told they’re also going to take a hit as a result of the pay increase. On a more personal level, asking workers to sign a pledge agreeing to unpaid breaks or less pay than actual hours worked is exploitative and remarkably unfair. It’s just a form of corporate bullying.
This has created an enormous response from Tim Hortons workers, labour unions and social justice activists. Protesters have rallied across Canada, calling on Tim Hortons’ franchisees and their parent company, Restaurant Brands International (RBI), to reverse claw-backs to workers’ benefits, breaks, tips and other benefits.
RBI is predominantly controlled by Brazilian private-equity firm 3G Capital. Based in Oakville, Ontario, RBI bought Tim Hortons for $12.5 billion in 2014, and also owns Burger King and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. It earned almost $1 billion (U.S.) in profit in 2016, a stunning 87 percent increase over the year before.
These franchisees have asked RBI to increase store prices to offset the minimum wage increase, but in all fairness, the corporate parent has dubbed them a “rogue group,” and claimed that their actions “do not reflect the values of our brand.” At the same time, RBI also says it considers its franchises to be “operated by small business owners who are responsible for handling all employment matters, including all policies for benefits and wages, for their restaurants.”
But this speaks to a larger issue: after forty years of corporate tax breaks, free trade agreements, attacks on unions and workers’ rights, privatization and deregulation, business owners and corporate executive feel so entitled in today’s Canada that they truly believe they can get away with anything.
Not so fast, because just this weekend, demonstrators aimed to gather at 42 Ontario locations on Friday, January 19, including 20 in Toronto, all of which has taken Canada’s corporate elite and media by surprise. Eleven more rallies were scheduled to take place across the country, according to organizers, who belong to the Fight-for-$15 movement, various labour unions and the independent advocacy group, Lead Now.
Other Tim Hortons franchisees have become more directly political. Owners of a location in Whitby, Ontario, listed as Susan and Jason Holman, gave a written notice to employees back in November 2017, more than a full month before the increase of the minimum wage on January 1, 2018.
Bad idea. The letter went fully public and viral on social media, and is now the cause of significant embarrassment for the owners.
The Holman’s further suggested that workers contact Premier Kathleen Wynne if they have concerns about the cuts to benefits — and let her know she doesn’t have their support. “I encourage you to let her know how your workplace will change as a result of her new [minimum wage] law and that you will not vote Liberal in the coming Ontario election in June 2018,” says the notice.
The Holmans own three Tim Hortons locations northeast of Toronto, including a pair in Whitby and one in nearby Ajax.
This intimidation of workers, and making them pawns in a political game, is yet another case of corporate bullying. If RBI isn’t going to take responsibility for ending this, then the Tim Hortons franchise owners should.
Although don’t expect this to happen by itself. History shows that rights and freedoms, be they for workers, women, people of colour, LGBTQ Canadians, First Nations, or other equity-seeking groups, aren’t handed down graciously from above. They are fought and struggled for from below.
This is why the Confederation of Canadian Unions gives its unconditional support to the workers of Tim Hortons, and fully defends the continued public opposition to the franchise owners. It’s time that workers at Tim Hortons have a living wage where they can work, have a career, and not have to worry about affording the basic necessities of life for themselves and their families.
On a larger scale, it’s ever more important for minimum wage workers and other modest-income Canadians to have the right to join democratic, independent unions to improve their pay, benefits and working conditions, so that one day, they won’t have to face the kind of bullying experienced by far too many workers throughout the country today.