Talking back to the boss



Talking back to bad bosses

Government employment standards set out basic requirements for fair practice by employers: like paying at least the minimum wage, giving minimum required notice for severance, and providing basic statutory benefits (like paid holidays). Unfortunately, when employers renege on these responsibilities, workers face an uphill struggle to win corrective action and compensation. Particularly for workers in non-union workplaces, fighting back is complex, time-consuming, and expensive – usually involving complaints with slow-moving government departments, or taking private legal action.

One creative initiative based in Victoria, B.C., has shown that direct action can be faster and more effective in addressing abuses by irresponsible employers. The WORKER SOLIDARITY NETWORK (WSN, formerly called the Retail Action Network) undertakes various ‘in-your-face’ strategies to press employers to fulfil their legal and regulatory responsibilities. Their tactics include public pressure, petitions, naming-and-shaming, and social media outreach.

$3000 in back pay

These interventions can pay big dividends for workers who need the help of a larger force in dealing with a bad boss. For example, near the end of 2020, a Victoria restaurant worker was discharged via text message from her job – after trying for weeks to obtain back pay owed by her employer. The boss told her that her tips offset her lost wages (which is illegal). The WSN launched a social media blitz tagging the restaurant, and a public petition; the worker received $3000 in back pay the same afternoon.

Wins a first contract

Some campaigns lead to permanent changes in workplaces, not just resolution of specific grievances. Workers at a Victoria health and supplements store, Lifestyle Markets, had voted to unionize with UFCW Local 1518 in February, 2020. But as the pandemic hit and business conditions deteriorated, the employer blocked efforts to reach a first collective agreement – despite the pressing need for clarity around sick days, pandemic pay, and other urgent issues. WSN organized a week of action to support the Lifestyle workers, including on-line reviews, a petition, mass faxes and e-mails, and more. The campaign prodded the employer into action: a first contract was ratified in the autumn, and included many improvements such as retroactive hazard pay for staff who worked through the pandemic.

Sources: UFCW (2020), Worker Solidarity Network (2020

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