Citizen Action: Organizing a Workplace Union

By Kareen Grant

Unionization first came up at our west Edmonton Red Lobster at the end of January 2018. I was approached by co-workers and asked if I was interested in starting something. I quickly said yes—we needed to get something done at our restaurant, because it was pretty much falling apart.

A few of us got together for a meeting. Everybody had the same issues; serious problems like seniority, where newer staff were regularly given more shifts than senior workers. Hours were especially crucial: benefits were cut off if you didn’t have enough hours. My husband had suffered a heart attack, and my benefits were the main reason I even stayed on at Red Lobster. I was just about to lose them—maybe another week, and I’d have lost my benefits.

And there were deeper problems. Staff had faced discrimination. Body-shaming, if you were a little bit overweight, if you were Asian. Two previous GMs had been like this, and the new one was no better. If he didn’t like you, for whatever reason, you were pushed aside.

It was all going downhill. We’d reached out to head office a couple of times. No response. At that meeting we agreed: We needed representation for us as employees.

When my co-workers and I first reached out to the United Food and Commercial Workers, we didn’t know what to expect. We’d heard that organizing a restaurant chain is tough, with workers often moving between jobs. We’d heard about Walmart, about other places that had gone through union drives, about how hard it was. I had my own concerns. What if this didn’t go through: Would I lose my job? But UFCW Local 401 organizer Catherine Lelis helped a lot. She was comforting. She said, “If you guys work as a team, it can be done.” She gave us information we didn’t have, because most of us were doing this for the first time.

Enough of us signed union cards, and we were automatically certified. No secret vote needed.

When it came out that I was helping to organize the Red Lobster, I got a lot of support from co-workers. People came up to me, saying, “I’m so proud of you. I’m so happy you’re here. We’re standing behind you. We all need this!”  That made me think we could do this. I wasn’t alone. My co-workers wanted this even more than I did!

But not everything was smooth. Support for unionization was solid among front-end workers such as servers, but the kitchen staff received a lot of misinformation from management: that the union was bad; the restaurant would close; they’d lose their jobs; they’d pay too much in union dues; they wouldn’t get tips, all that stuff. Front-end workers rallied; we came to kitchen staff and focused on personal relationships.

We found strength in each other. Some days I’d be really down, then a co-worker would say “Kareen, we can do this!” Then she’d run, run, run. The next month she’d go, “This isn’t going to work,” and the next worker would take up the cause. Between three of us we did it together.

Eventually enough of us signed union cards, and we were automatically certified. No secret vote needed. The Notley government had brought in a law making it fairer for workers trying to unionize.

We workers are now in mediation, trying to get a collective agreement. I’m one of three members of the bargaining team sitting across from our corporate bosses. Bargaining is hard, and I’ve found it very frustrating how far the company will go to fight even about non-monetary issues.

But though we’ve been threatened, none of us have lost our jobs as a result of the union drive. The restaurant’s doing as well as ever, and remains quite profitable. There was one job loss, though—the manager at the time we were inspired to organize. He’s gone.

Kareen Grant works at the west Edmonton Red Lobster.


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