Alberta union launches online fight against restaurant giant

Call it a digital warning shot.

Two Alberta unions have quietly launched a website,, which targets one of Canada's largest restaurant franchisers, Cara, over alleged "ethical concerns".

The barebones site, created by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union Local 401 and the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) only states, "There are serious ethical concerns relating to Swiss Chalet, Milestones, Harvey's and Kelsey's" and to "Stand by for more information".

"Your definition of ethics and my definition of ethics may vary," says Tom Hesse, UFCW 401 union negotiator. "But most people would agree that they'd like a restaurant in their community that treats their people fairly, or at least reasonably."

"People will obviously think, 'What is going on? What are the ethical concerns?' when they go by these places. It's a very good strategy on their part." — Marjorie Griffin, Simon Fraser UniversityHesse says the ethical concerns with Cara, hinted at on the new website, were uncovered during the union's interviews with Cara's employees. The UFCW currently represents the workers of two Swiss Chalet restaurants in Edmonton.

The two parties are scheduled to meet next week, to begin collective bargaining for the Swiss Chalets UFCW 401 represents.

Hesse says the restaurants exploit immigrant workers, pays its employees poorly, ignores health and safety concerns, and is using Alberta's two-tiered minimum wage system to its advantage.

Alberta's minimum wage is set to increase from $9.40 to $9.75 per hour this September. However, the minimum wage for liquor servers, $9.05 per hour, will remain unchanged.

And because the restaurants serve alcohol, Hesse says Swiss Chalets typically pay their workers the lower rate. "They don't serve alcohol there in any meaningful way," he says. "One of the owners told me it's less than five percent of their overall sales."

Cara is a privately held restaurant conglomerate that's been operating in Canada since 1883. Its 673 restaurants in Canada reported $1.3 billion in sales in 2011.

The company declined interview requests to respond to the website or to Hesse's accusations, issuing a prepared statement:

"As discussions are still ongoing between our Edmonton franchisee and the UFCW union local representatives, it would be inappropriate for Cara to provide comment at this time." will function much like, another website launched by the UFCW 401 and the AFL. That site, says Hesse, aims to inform diners and shoppers of the most ethically sound places to spend their money.

"You can go look at UrbanSpoon (.com) for a rating of where to eat... based on whether or not people like it," says Hesse. "But our constituency of people are saying they want to eat somewhere that treats their people fairly, that has good food safety practices, that isn't overpriced, and that buys locally."

Cara's franchises will likely be the first restaurants to be on the receiving end of an EthicalSpoon information campaign, if working conditions are not addressed soon, Hesse says.

It may turn out to be an effective strategy, but is it fair to sling mud anonymously?

"I think it's a good tactic, they've got nothing to lose by this," says Marjorie Griffin Cohen, professor of political economy at Simon Fraser University's Morgan Centre for Labour Studies.

Griffin Cohen says unions in Canada are increasingly taking to Twitter and Facebook to promote their agendas, and keeping the site's creators off EthicalSpoon makes it all the more interesting to whoever comes across it.

"People will obviously think, 'What is going on? What are the ethical concerns?' when they go by these places." she says. "It's a very good strategy on their part."

OpenFile, Mon July 30 2012
Byline: Sean Young

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