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The Food Industry Has Been Notoriously Hard To Organize. Could These Tactics Bring It New Life?

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When Amanda Cestare started working at New York City’s famous Ellen’s Stardust Diner in 2008, she didn’t know much about leftist politics or the labor movement.

Ten years later, she’s helping to build a local chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), one of the most radical unions in history. The group of 50 restaurant workers has found success through direct action, rather than taking the conventional route of trying to negotiate a contract with management.

Though small, the Stardust effort is one of several recent campaigns bringing fresh energy and ideas to the beleaguered labor movement as it tries to stage a comeback in the food and drink industry.

In the Portland, Oregon, area, dozens of fast-food workers earned groundbreaking union recognition this spring at two Burgerville stores, part of a larger campaign to organize all of the chain’s 1,500 employees. Seventeen baristas at multiple locations for the Ithaca, New York-based Gimme! Coffee inked what’s been hailed as a first-of-its-kind collective bargaining agreement at the beginning of this year. And in Brooklyn, a handful of servers just turned a strike against their former employer, House of Kava, into a new collectively-owned business venture.  

Some of these efforts rely on support from groups like the Democratic Socialists of America or the IWW, rather than more traditional labor unions, and are drawing inspiration from the national Fight for $15 movement, which has helped raise worker pay across the country. And while they capitalize on the simmering unrest among young, politically-engaged workers, they also raise sticky questions about the utility of relatively small organizing efforts, and whether collective bargaining agreements should be a central goal.


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The effort at Ellen’s Stardust Diner is illustrative of these trends. Tourists have long flocked to this venue for a unique dining experience, where waiters, often Broadway actors, perform showtunes between orders.

But in 2016, many servers were fuming beneath their show-biz exteriors. Longstanding mistreatment had worsened under new management, and Cestare said many employees were dealing with harassment and wage theft. Workers reached out to several unions for help, she said, but the IWW was the only one that promptly returned their calls.  

The IWW occupies a special place in American labor history. Launched in 1905 at the end of the Gilded Age, the group aimed to replace capitalism with one big union, a “concentration of labor power to meet a concentration of ownership,” Patrick Renshaw wrote in his 1967 book, “The Wobblies.”

After membership peaked at 150,000 in 1917, government repression and group infighting helped reduce the union to a shadow of its former self by 1924. But the IWW clung to life over the next 90 years and has even had somewhat of a rebirth recently. It has 3,700 members as of 2016, or roughly double its 2008 level.

The IWW is in some ways an activist, leftist group as much as it as a union. It remains committed to the “abolition of the wage system” and invites workers to become dues-paying members regardless of whether the union has a foothold in their workplace. It identifies as a “class struggle union,” one that eschews hierarchies or ”dividing workers by skill or trade.”

IWW offered the Stardust workers three mentors who could provide pointers on growing membership, identifying common grievances and taking collective action. Cestare, a waitress and actress, described the IWW’s playbook as “agitate, educate, inoculate, organize, unionize.”

“They really advocate that you go slowly and safely through those measures as opposed to acting very quickly in anger,” she said.

At Stardust, that meant working for more than six months to get 50 of the restaurant’s 100 employees on board. In July 2016, they went public as Stardust Family United, a new branch of the IWW. The Stardust workers have since won raises, reinstatement and back wages for fired workers, a functioning air conditioner, a new grill and a lactation room for new mothers, Cestare said. (Management of Ellen’s Stardust Diner did not respond to a request for comment.)

But unlike most unionization drives, Stardust workers have not pursued formal employer recognition or tried to negotiate a union contract. The National Labor Relations Board oversees those processes, which can provide a level of security for a union and its members. It would also mean the union is subject to a government-mediated framework that generally restricts workers’ right to strike and gives management sole authority over certain business matters. The IWW believes these constraints undercut worker power and prefers to avoid them ― though it does sometimes organize more formal unions as well.

This approach carries both greater risk and greater potential reward, said Jay Youngdahl, a labor attorney and visiting scholar at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.

“Without a binding collective bargaining agreement, a kind of daily democracy prevails,” he said. “You have to be ready to fight every day, enhancing solidarity and militancy but leaving workers subject to greater daily employer pressure which can unduly influence the less engaged workers.”

Cestare said she likes the strategy because “we don’t have a separate entity bargaining for us” and “we can take direct action at any moment.”


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The Stardust diner campaign marks a bright spot for labor in an industry that often sees high turnover, widespread use of undocumented workers, thin profit margins and systemic disregard for labor law.

As of 2017, only 1.4 percent of workers in “food services and drinking places” were in unions, compared to 10.7 percent of the overall workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The organizing challenges have tended to be more acute with fast-food workers, in part because they are often employed by franchisers with limited control over business costs, and because of the public perception that fast-food jobs are meant to be temporary.

But the IWW sees an opening in this sector, too. In a campaign that more closely resembles conventional organizing tactics, IWW has been targeting Burgerville, a fast-food chain with 1,500 employees and 42 locations in the Portland area, with a unionization drive since April 2016.

The IWW ultimately petitioned for and won NLRB-sponsored elections to force the company to recognize the Burgerville Workers Union as the workers’ exclusive bargaining agent at a Portland store in late April, and at another store in Gladstone, Oregon, three weeks later. Organizers claim they are the first employees of self-standing fast food stores in the United States to win union recognition ― at least in recent decades.

Members of the Burgerville Workers Union are still in the process of negotiating a contract, but have demanded a $5 raise, benefits for all employees and policies that offer more protection to immigrants, said Luis Brennan, an IWW member who is employed at another Burgerville location at the Portland International Airport. He has helped spearhead the chain-wide campaign, though workers at his store have not formally joined the Burgerville Workers Union at this point.

One tactic that has contributed to the campaign’s success has been “salting,” the practice of taking a job for the purpose of organizing a workplace. But Brennan said they still need to have buy-in from other staffers. “Because our union is based on the shop floor with our co-workers, nothing is going to happen if workers aren’t ready to organize,” he said.

Brennan was already an IWW member when he started working for Burgerville four years ago but said he didn’t take the job with the strict intent of organizing. Other IWW members did, however, including a janitor who decided to take a second job at one of the now-unionized Burgerville locations both because he needed the money and because he “believed in the cause,” Brennan said.

To press their demands, Burgerville workers have used strikes, social media campaigns and a boycott backed by faith organizations, community groups and a number of other unions. They decided to take the customary path of NLRB-supervised elections only after two years of pressure did not spur Burgerville to negotiate, Brennan said.

IWW-sponsored “worker committees” with plans to unionize have gone public in five other Burgerville locations, while a number of others are preparing to do the same. Brennan said 10 of 12 workers walked off the job during a shift at one of these locations in late August after they were told they couldn’t wear buttons with political messages like “Black Lives Matter” or “Abolish ICE.”

“That’s the kind of thing that we can do, regardless of the legal status,” Brennan said.

Burgerville management said by email that it “is and always has been pro-employee,” and since the beginning of IWW’s campaign, has “believed that every employee’s voice needs to be respected and protected in determining whether they wish to be represented by a union.”


SIPA USA/PA Images

Brennan credits Fight for $15, the national living wage campaign that has helped win minimum-wage increases for many fast-food workers, with laying some of the groundwork for the Burgerville campaign. That campaign has helped foster a certain militancy among fast-food workers, not to mention more public sympathy for their plight, he said.

Brennan hopes the Burgerville campaign can show the movement and its sponsor, the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), that more can be done to achieve broad-scale union penetration in the fast-food industry. 

“We saw an opportunity to take the next step for the movement,” Brennan said.

So far, SEIU hasn’t channelled Fight for $15 into an effort to formally unionize fast-food stores shop by shop. The union has instead focused on building a “critical mass” large enough to win representation for workers simultaneously across a broad swath of the industry, said Hector Figueroa, president of SEIU 32BJ, a New York City-based chapter with 163,000 members across the Northeast.

Figueroa argues that a shop-by-shop approach like the IWW’s might leave a few, isolated union shops struggling to compete with non-union shops, which could potentially backfire for employees and sap the momentum of the fast-food workers’ movement.

But the IWW, Brennan said, thinks the time has come to form self-sustaining “bases of power” in individual stores that can take independent action to wring concessions from employers. 


Mike Blake / Reuters

When evaluating the IWW’s shop-by-shop approach against SEIU’s more broad-based strategy, it’s also worth considering that the Burgerville campaign may have benefited from the fact that the chain does not license independent franchisees to operate stores like McDonald’s or Burger King. Burgerville owns all its stores and directly employs the people who work at them.

Franchised locations can be tougher to unionize because their semi-independent owners are squeezed from two sides: They must pay a hefty cut of their revenue to the franchisor while also operating according to the franchisor’s strict business rules, said David Weil, who served as the head of the wage and hour division at the U.S. Department of Labor from April 2014 to January 2017.

That severely limits the ability of franchisees to control many of their costs, and worker pay is one of the few they can control. A union threatens that control, which makes franchisees “incredibly resistant” to unionization, Weil said. That leaves further room for doubt about whether the Burgerville shop-by-shop strategy can be scaled across the entire fast-food industry.

Brennan, the Burgerville employee, acknowledges that a union drive could put a franchisee that owns a single store between a rock and a hard place, but he said that franchisees that own large clusters of stores can certainly afford to pay more.

The IWW attempted to unionize workers at 10 Jimmy John’s locations owned by a single franchisee in Minneapolis in 2010, but lost narrowly. Brennan thinks they might have a better chance if they tried today because of the groundwork Fight for $15 has laid around the country.

Millennials in particular are itching for a fight, he said ― a cohort “freshly pissed off” about their job prospects, as well as capitalism in general. His observation tracks with a recent Gallup poll that found Americans aged 18 to 29 have a more positive view of socialism than capitalism.  

For these younger workers, efforts like the Burgerville campaign offer the “opportunity to feel powerful, and to feel like change possible, to hear their voice through a bullhorn,” Brennan said in a recent panel discussion hosted by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).


Burgerville Workers Union/Facebook

The DSA is another group increasingly involved in labor activism in the food and beverage sector. In the wake of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, the organization’s membership has jumped from 6,000 in 2015 to nearly 50,000, and they’re using that enthusiasm to force workplace change.

A recent revolt at a Brooklyn tearoom shows how the group can put muscle behind campaigns and embolden employees to take unusual risks.

In late June, five of the six servers at the Brooklyn tearoom House of Kava staged a DSA-backed walkout after management refused a meeting to discuss scheduling issues, said Kriss Marchena, one of the workers. House of Kava management disputed this account by email, saying it had agreed to meet with the strikers if they came to work, but that they chose to strike instead. The servers were ultimately fired.

DSA members, some of whom had been patrons at House of Kava, played a key role in manning the picket line and promoting a boycott of the teahouse, said Marchena, who has since joined DSA.

“DSA was pivotal in helping us come together and build our workers’ identity,” he added. “They were the ones that gave us the tools to build that identity in terms of making concrete statements and having the language necessary to express those ideas.”

The community that formed around the dispute inspired the former workers to form their own co-operative popup kava bar. They’ve started out by hosting after-hour events in partnership with Caffeine Underground, a local coffee shop sympathetic to their cause, and hope to develop the project into a collectively-owned kava bar with its own space.

Workers who’ve participated in these struggles often find a new sense of purpose, with some even moving on to help with other organizing efforts.

That was the case with Korbin Richards, one of 17 baristas at four locations of the Ithaca, New York-based coffee chain Gimme! Coffee to win a union election last year. The workers negotiated a contract in February, and appear to be the only baristas directly employed by a coffee chain to have done so successfully in the U.S.

Now members of the local 2822 chapter of Workers United, the baristas received crucial backing from Tompkins County Workers’ Center, a nonprofit that provides education, advocacy and organizing advice to non-unionized, low-wage workers.

The union drive gave Richards and her co-workers more pride in their work and a better understanding of class issues.

“There is a myth pedaled around that justifies low wages and no benefits at jobs like this,” she said. “That’s just not true, and is nothing but a tool to save the CEO profit.”

Gimme! management did not respond to a request for comment.

All of these campaigns come at a time when Americans are more eager to join unions than they have been in at least four decades. Looking to help nourish this appetite, Richards, who has since left her barista job due to a disability, now advises other workers interested in organizing, while veterans of the Ellen’s Stardust Diner campaign are helping unionize employees of other New York City restaurants, Cestare said.

Brennan said all of these efforts are creating a “culture of resistance on the job, and a culture of self-organization” ― a culture that is “going to be the foundation of rebuilding the labor movement.”

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11-Step Guide to Buying A House

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Purchasing a home is likely going to be one of the largest purchases you will make in your lifetime, which is why it is so important to follow the right steps when starting on your home-buying journey to ensure that the entire process goes smoothly from start to finish!

We’ve put together a step-by-step guide to buying a home, to help you get off on the right foot when it comes to buying a home. Click the download button below to download these steps in PDF form.

1. Decide to buy a home

Make sure you are ready both financially and emotionally!

2. Get Pre-Approved

Work with a mortgage broker or your bank. They will work with you on what you require to submit an application. Once approved, this will determine how much you can afford to spend on a home.

3. REALTOR® Consultation

Work with a RE/MAX agent to help guide you through the process. The right agent will discuss your price range, ideal locations, current market conditions and much more!

4. Start Your Search

Your REALTOR® will get you information on new homes that meet your criteria as soon as they’re listed. They’ll work with you and for you to ensure you find your dream home.

5. Current Market Conditions

Your experienced RE/MAX agent is a valuable resource as you consider different properties. They will be there when you have questions regarding the homes you’re interested in – they can tell you what is a good deal, and when to walk away.

6. Make an Offer

Your REALTOR® will help create your offer tailored to your needs including the right subject clauses down to the closing date that works best for you.

7. Negotiate

You may receive a counter offer but don’t be worried! RE/MAX agents will negotiate for you to ensure you get the best possible price for the house you love!

8. Accepted Offer

It’s crunch time! The next few weeks are busy as you need to schedule and remove every one of your subject clauses by the specified date. You’ll likely need to schedule an inspection, appraisal, financing approval, and several others. You will also need to provide a deposit to put down on the home. The deposit will be a pre-determined amount given in-trust to your REALTOR® to show the sellers you are committed to this home. Don’t worry, that money goes towards the purchase of said home if all goes well! This is a busy time but be sure to reach out to your RE/MAX agent if you have any questions or are unsure about next steps.

9. Subject Removal

Once you have completed all your subject clauses, and everything went smooth, it is time for you to sign on the dotted line and consider your new home to be yours (almost!).

10. Official Documents

You will need to provide your RE/MAX agent with your preferred lawyer or notary to have the official title transferred into your name. You will meet with the lawyer or notary in person to sign all the legal documents before you move in. This typically happens a few days before you take possession of your new home.

11. Move In!

Congratulations, you are officially a homeowner! The date pre-determined by you is your move-in day! You can now move into your new home. Your RE/MAX agent will be there ready and waiting to hand you the keys. Enjoy!

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Know When to Rent ‘Em, Know When to Buy ‘Em

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We’re told it’s always better to buy than rent. Everyone—from our parents to the banks to the government—encourages us to buy, buy, buy our homes.

But times have changed, and I dare say that these authority figures might be slightly out of touch. The jaw-droppingly high cost of real estate in big cities is encouraging millennials to rent instead of own, causing homeownership rates to drop. At 30 years old, 50.2% of millennials own homes versus 55% of baby boomers at the same age. As a millennial homeowner, I can’t help but wonder if I’m generationally displaced.

There’s an old misconception out there about renting that needs to be addressed. You’re not “throwing away your money” if you’re renting. While that familiar axiom might be true sometimes, there are plenty of circumstances in which it does actually make more sense to rent than buy.

You Might Choose to Rent If…

…You Invest What You Save

Renting tends to come with lower carrying costs than owning. Typically, all you’ll have to worry about paying as a renter is, well, the rent (clearly) and perhaps a share of utilities. This leaves you with extra monthly cash to invest, which can ultimately put you on even financial footing or better with a homeowner.

As always, there’s a familiar caveat here: You need to be financially disciplined for this strategy to pay off. One mistake I see a lot is that those who rent tend to fall prey to something called ‘lifestyle inflation.’ Rather than investing what they save as renters, they just rent nicer apartments, eat at fancier restaurants, and put more money into their wardrobe than their RRSP. But this money vacuum can be easily avoided by:

1. Budgeting to find out how much you have left over to invest each month after factoring out all your expenses, then;

2. Funneling that leftover money directly into your investments. Some robo-advisors, like Wealthsimple, allow you to do this automatically via pre-authorized contributions, which set recurring transfers from your chequing account into your investment portfolio, at whatever amount and interval you choose.

…You Have Rent Control, aka the Urban Holy Grail

Depending on where you live, you might be lucky enough to benefit from the urban miracle known as rent control. That means your landlord can only increase your rent by the rate of inflation, which in turn keeps your cost of living way down and leaves you with more money to invest. In Canada, rent control is now implemented in most big cities like Toronto and Vancouver (although not in Montreal).

…You Have a Mobile Lifestyle

Renting makes it easier to move; if you’d like to relocate it’s usually as simple as giving your landlord 60 days written notice. But when you own a home you’re more tied down, and the obligation to be near your property may prevent you from chasing new adventures in faraway lands. I once turned down a fantastic job opportunity in Dallas, Texas for this very reason.

…You’re on a Tight Budget

Renting tends to be more affordable than buying in big cities like Toronto and Vancouver. I know, I know, renting is still unreasonably pricey in certain neighborhoods. But buying in those same areas can be arm-and-a-leg expensive.

When you rent, all you have to come up with is the first and last month’s rent; no need to scrimp and save to pull together a massive down payment on a house, which, incidentally, will take you two to four times longer to save than it did your parents.

And homeownership leads to a lot of other costs aside from mortgage payments. When you buy real estate, you’ll need to pay closing costs, which typically add up to between 1.5%–4% of the property’s purchase price and can include a home inspection fee, real estate lawyer fee, land transfer taxes, and homeowners insurance (sometimes you’ll have to fork over an entire year’s worth of home insurance as one lump sum).

There’s also the elephant in the room that nobody likes to speak about: repairs and maintenance. Homeowners are responsible for paying the big bucks for costly home repairs, such as a new roof and furnace, and are advised to set aside 3–5% of a home’s value toward home repairs and maintenance each year. Renters, on the other hand, can just call their landlord whenever they need repairs (provided the landlord actually picks up). Still, it’s important that tenants know their rights when renting to be aware of which fees do and don’t fall under their responsibility.

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A Montreal Real Estate Broker Answered 5 Qs About Buying A Property To Rent Out

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You’ve probably heard that Montreal’s real estate market is on fire. But how can you get in on the action? According to Alex Marshall, a local real estate broker, buying a property as an investment for the purpose of renting it out is a great way to go about it.

Marshall, who’s part of the Keller Williams Prestige team, sat down with us to explain why and how to purchase an investment property. These types of properties are also known as revenue properties.

Why do you recommend buying a revenue property?

Marshall used personal experience to highlight the advantages of owning a revenue property. He’s currently renting out the Saint-Henri loft he bought in 2010.

“Not only is my tenant paying off my mortgage, but I’m making a couple 100 bucks a month as well,” Marshall said.

Marshall was also able to take out a line of credit on the property, he said, and use the equity to buy an additional property.

“You actually don’t need to live in the property that you buy. I’m seeing clients who are in apartments with low rent [who] don’t want to move but have got the money right now … and are looking for smart ways to invest,” he said.

What are some tips to help people save up for a revenue property?

When Marshall was saving up to buy his first property, he said he worked a second job. 

“There’s a lot of value to having that side hustle … even if it’s at Subway or it’s at a landscaping company on Saturdays. It will add up significantly in the long run,” he said.

He gave the example of adding $5,000 to your annual income.

Marshall said you can qualify to borrow roughly four times your annual salary for a mortgage so $5,000 could actually provide you with an extra $20,000 of buying power.

“That might get you a second bedroom, that might get you a parking spot, that might get you a larger space,” he said.

The pandemic, Marshall said, has also helped some of his clients save extra funds.

“You can’t travel, you can’t go to the restaurant, you can’t go to the theatre, you can’t go to the bar. So a lot of people right now are finding themselves with almost a disposable income,” he said.

Marshall also recommends looking into Canada’s Home Buyers’ Plan program, which allows you to withdraw up to $35,000 — — tax-free — from your registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) to put toward buying or building a qualifying home. 

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