The new year has started off with a solid victory for 50 Toronto workers still engaged in a year-long labour dispute with Richtree Restaurant, as the Ontario Labour Board released their ruling in favour of their union Unite Here Local 75.
Just over a year ago, 50 unionized workers were laid off by the Richtree Restaurant's Eaton Center location on the grounds that the restaurant was permanently closing down and so the entire staff had to be let go. Just a few months later however, in September 2013, the company reopened in the same mall with an entirely new - non-union - staff.
The restaurant tried to justify this by saying that because they were reopening a few feet away from their old location, with a new mailing address, (though of course retaining the same Richtree name, branding, and concept as before) this was somehow an entirely new restaurant with no union ties, no contract and no obligations to the previous staff.
Many, however, have recognized this as a blatant attempt at union busting. This was a case where a company took advantage of the ongoing anti-worker economic climate to effect a particularly ruthless attack in order to see if it could push the bar further and crush its union. Had they succeeded and been supported in this claim, it would have opened the door to any company being able to rid itself of its union by simply closing down for a few months to renovate.
Resistance and solidarity
Recognizing the stakes of this struggle, the resistance to Richtree's attack on workers has been truly inspiring. From September through January, Unite Here has organized a number of loud and spirited rallies outside the Eaton Center. The rallies were well attended, in some cases by hundreds of people, including the local 75 members, many workers from the labour movement, and community allies.
Even more impressive was the solidarity received from outside the local. Rank and file groups from countless other union locals, as well as student unions and activist groups have not only supported existing rallies and actions, but have also independently engaged in delegations to management and direct actions inside the restaurant. This has kept up the pressure on management and supported the morale of the laid-off workers.
A well orchestrated media campaign has kept the struggle in the public eye, and worked to further embarrass the restaurant, pressuring them to do the right thing. Countless articles and videos have come out about the restaurant in both mainstream and more independent media, while the public's social media backlash has all but buried Richtree's attempts at a promotional strategy.
Finally, on January 7 the Ontario Labour Board came out with its ruling stating that Unite Here still represents the workers at the renovated restaurant. This means that Richtree's attempt to portray the re-opening as a different restaurant has failed.
Though an important ruling, this is still only a single legal victory and is limited in scope. The struggle must continue as the company itself has refused to change its anti-worker attitude. Furthermore the ruling does not say anything about the 50 laid off workers, who have yet to be either given their jobs back or offered reasonable compensation.
Another factor at play in the situation is that this entire labour struggle has been taking place during contract negotiations at three different Richtree locations in Toronto. While the Eaton Centre location has been at the centre of this dispute, the company has shown some indications that it is considering a lockout of the other two Richtree locations. It seems possible that management will attempt to poison the working environment at the Eaton Center location as well.
Socialists understand that while the capitalist state sometimes comes out in favour of workers in order to maintain labour peace, it ultimately exists to support capital. Thus we know that labour struggles are not so much won in the courts, but rather on the streets and in the workplace. This dispute is still far from over. It enters now into the most important phase, where workers have to come together for one last push and pressure the company to fulfil their obligations: to bring back the unjustly laid off workers, to accept a good contract and to stop threatening the rest of it's workers.
As important as this first victory may be, the struggle of the laid-off workers continues in earnest and will require more support then ever in the upcoming weeks. But so long as the workers continue showing the same determination to fight, and as long as the solidarity from other groups continues to be as strong as it has been, there is every reason to believe that this struggle will soon resolve into a major victory.