Tony Dempsey loves working at Stella's, and says he hasn't had a complaint in his four years at the Winnipeg restaurant chain.

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This article was published 14/12/2018 (1260 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Tony Dempsey loves working at Stella's, and says he hasn't had a complaint in his four years at the Winnipeg restaurant chain.

So he seems an unlikely candidate to spearhead a drive that could result in two Stella's restaurants being unionized by the end of next week.

"I really like working at Stella's and I want the business to come back," said Dempsey, who began as a cook and is now a server the Sherbrook Street location.

"But where's the resolution to the 'Not My Stella's' movement? If we brought a union in, we could say to the public, 'Look what we've done. You can come back now, we have protection.'"

Tony Dempsey, who has worked at Stella's for four years, says he believes a union might be the right move for the restaurant. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

Tony Dempsey, who has worked at Stella's for four years, says he believes a union might be the right move for the restaurant. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

More than the required 40 per cent of 70 workers at the Sherbrook location and 30 employees at the smaller Osborne Street location have signed union membership cards, triggering next week's votes. If successful, the employees would be represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

The union drives began in the wake of the social media campaign Not My Stella's, which compiled current and former staff grievances. The Instagram account quickly filled with hundreds of postings alleging sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying and abuse of staff at the popular, seven-location Winnipeg restaurant chain.

The workers approached UFCW Canada, Dempsey said, as many demands that surfaced in the social media campaign would be remedied if a restaurant was unionized.

"Where's the resolution to the 'Not My Stella's' movement? If we brought a union in, we could say to the public, 'Look what we've done. You can come back now, we have protection.'"

Meanwhile, Stella's is currently undergoing a review by People First HR Services, a third-party human resources firm that is investigating worker complaints.

However, Dempsey said the employees don't trust that process.

"HR is just the company, right? A union would be advocating for us, whereas HR really advocates for the company," he said Friday. "If you're a doctor, you have a medical society that basically acts like a union. If you're a nurse, you have a union. Teachers have a union.

"Why should it be any different for cooks?"

Stella's co-owner Tore Sohlberg belongs to a union, as a pilot for WestJet.

The Stella's location on Sherbrook. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The Stella's location on Sherbrook. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Dempsey said it would benefit Stella's to have an organized, structured body to talk with "and not just have things popping up on Instagram."

"I know employers hate unions, but is that a rational thing? You save money by not having to be always training people because workers tend to stick around. The workers are happier."

Stella's has not yet responded to the union drive. Legislation allows a company to provide factual information and express its opinion when a union is being organized.

McKim Communication Group, which represents Stella's, said the restaurant chain knows the process has begun, and is "respectful of that process."

"We have to wait and see what comes of it before we're able to discuss it in any more detail," it said Friday in a statement.

"I know employers hate unions, but is that a rational thing? You save money by not having to be always training people because workers tend to stick around. The workers are happier."

In the meantime, Stella's will focus on completing its review and plans to make operational changes to improve its workplace, according to the statement.

Unions in restaurants are not common in Canada.

Celebrations Dinner Theatre and the Velvet Glove (in the Fairmont Hotel) are two in Winnipeg. Rôtisserie St-Hubert in Quebec, and a number of Swiss Chalet locations in Ontario are also unionized, a UFCW spokesman said.

The scheduling of shifts may seem a mundane topic to the outside world, but it's a huge issue for people in the hospitality industry.

Mikayla Masihi, who is also organizing at the Sherbrook location, said her three years at Stella's has been mostly positive, until about a month before the Not My Stella's campaign caught the public's attention.

In its wake, many long-time employees saw their shifts "completely cut, from working five shifts per week to down to one or two or none a week, and with no notice or explanation," she said.

Some staff allege Stella's over-hired, so it could threaten to cut a person's hours if they didn't fill less-desirable shifts.

"As much as I'm thankful for Stella's taking accountability for what's happened, and for the Not My Stella's page, I don't see long-term change," Masihi said.

Notices of the secret ballot vote next week went up at the Osborne location Wednesday and the Sherbrook location Thursday. Vote dates were not yet set as of Friday.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca