Someone had heard about the
IWW from a friend, got in touch with the union through the Internet and
arranged to meet and discuss ways to claim a stolen salary. That’s actually how
many of our Claim Your Pay campaigns begin, but our most recent one was a bit
out of the ordinary. This is the story of a victorious campaign, the biggest in
the history of our branch thus far.
In her first message sent to the IWW at the end of January, a worker tells us about a chic restaurant that had closed its doors, and workers having their paychecks bouncing back and worked hours not being paid. We decided to call her to hear more about the situation, to then find out that there were 11 workers from that restaurant who unpaid hours and/or bounced paychecks! The information is passed on to the union volunteers taking care of Claim Your Pay campaigns. Considering the magnitude of the situation, a team of 3 Wobblies is formed. Quickly, we organized a meeting with as many workers as possible. 5 of the 11 workers attended this first meeting, where we added up every salary that was to be claimed through the campaign, and came to realize that more than $20 000 were at stake! We also noted down all relevant information about the restaurant’s boss : in addition to the closed restaurant, he co-owns a chain of coffee shops in Montreal and a coffee distribution company. He also has a bad habit of not paying his employees; the workers at the meeting had heard stories similar to their own spanning the last 10 years. That meant that the boss wouldn’t be easily impressed. This time however, the claims were organized and supported by a union. Not wasting any time, we established a calendar with the direct actions that were to be undertaken in the upcoming weeks.
All the IWW campaigns to claim stolen wages rely on direct action. The workers at our meeting had all made a complaint to CNESST, except for one who was getting paid under the table. But these complaints can take up to a year or more before a worker can gain their claim, and for many workers, a year is way too long to wait when the amount due is three to four work-weeks. Direct action puts pressure on the employers by convincing them that they have more to lose if they do not pay their employees, all without going through the legal system. The workers are always the ones democratically choosing the actions that will be taken to win their claim, even though the supporting union members can always suggest some.
The first step was to send letters of demands to their boss asking for each of the stolen salaries, informing him of the precise amounts that he needed to pay and that a union was now on the case. While the letters were on their way to his mailbox, the boss contacted one of the workers, with the intention to pay her after she had just complained publicly. Members of the union accompanied the worker to that meeting, seizing the opportunity to hand him the letters of demands. He took them without any reaction, and we did not hear from him. No message, no phone call… Time to take action !
We started by sending emails denouncing the situation to many of his work partners, without any result. We continued our actions with a phone zap, during which many people called the owner’s business to block telephone lines for two hours, followed by a negative comments blitz on the business’ social media (Facebook, Google, Yelp, etc). To add public pressure, we published on the union’s blog an article exposing him and all the unpaid salaries. At this point, 3 weeks have gone by and some workers started receiving messages from the boss threatening them with a lawsuit and claiming that he wasn’t scared of a union. Still mounting the pressure, the next action began in early March, by showing up in front of the coffee shops he co-owns and flyering. The managers freaked out a little bit, but we managed to flyer for three days in a row and in front of 3 different coffee shops without much trouble.
It is during that week that the union finally gets contacted by the boss to arrange a meeting, which took place on March 14th. During this meeting, he served us the usual platitudes : ‘’It’s only a misunderstanding, I’m the real victim here, we could have just talked this out, no need to attack me’’ and etc. Nevertheless, we still got out of that meeting with about $12 000 in checks! Six out of the 11 workers were now fully paid, but there were still 5 workers with unpaid wages.
The rest of the campaign scales over 4 months, during which we discussed and negotiated with the boss to get the rest of the stolen salaries. At some point, it seemed to us that the boss was ignoring us, so we organized another small flyering action at two of his coffee shops, to get his attention once more. The campaign was fully victorious last June 19th, when the remaining paychecks were finally delivered by their employer. One worker did not receive all of her wages, because she decided to stop the direct action campaign and to throw all of weight behind her complaint to the CNESST. We care to mention that the worker that was working under the table has had her full salary paid, and without any particular difficulty.
In total, the efforts from these 11 workers and the union have helped claim $20 995 in unpaid work hours and indemnities. Without any doubt, a direct action campaign means more work than simply filing a complaint, but this victory shows us once more that armed with solidarity, we can overcome any obstacle and build a better world for tomorrow.