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The Swiss Chalet Workers

Mainstream Labour's Best Kept Secret

This is the first part of an investigative feature about workers at Swiss Chalet Restaurants and their unions. This large group of service industry workers are in many ways organized labour's enigma - a large unionized beachhead in an industry that prides itself in keeping unions out but one the mainstream movement does not seem to want to know much about. That's unfortunate, because the labour history of these workers, or what we can make of it so far, is filled with messages for the movement. It is a history that will seem either highly disturbing or highly typical depending on one's level of familiarity with the real world of labour relations. Either way, we need to know about it and to understand it. It's time to bring that history into the light.

We present this history so that those of us who care about the community of workers can decipher the signals it sends us about the service industry, its workers and their unions and, most importantly, what must be done and what must change if unions want to become a relevant force in the lives of those workers. We present this history also for the workers who are or were at one time a part of this story, it's important that they know their past so that they can influence their future. Finally, we want to put forward our knowledge so that it may enhance the body of knowledge available to those involved in study, research and teaching about labour and its history.

The beginning of our story is murky (to say the least), answering some questions and raising many more. Little is known about the mysterious man who single-handedly organized an entire restaurant chain but what is on the public record tells at least some of the story. Most of the information presented in this series is drawn from public sources (LRB decisions and documents associated with those), media accounts and material published by the various unions. This is very much a work in progress, however, and we encourage anyone with information that sheds additional light on the events that we will describe, to share that information with us for the benefit of the broader community of workers.

Of Unions and Chicken Men

We don't know exactly how he did it but we know that he did it. Over a period of some 18 months from 1978 to 1980, a man with no known connection to the labour community single-handedly organized an entire restaurant chain - some 30 restaurants located in Ontario, Alberta and Quebec. He did so at a time when fear of impending unionization was rife among hospitality industry employers and when, perhaps even more so than today, great efforts were undertaken by employers to keep unions out.

His name was William Von Ferst. We don't know where he came from or where he went after his phenomenal organizing achievement. Certainly, he was not a known quantity in labour circles or in labour consulting circles. Despite his enormous success, he kept a low profile, shunning media inquiries and operating out of a mailbox. Although there appears to have been some media interest in what he was doing, this brief article, which appeared in a HERE newsletter in the summer of 1979, is the extent of the print coverage of his campaign.

The workplaces Von Ferst organized were called Swiss Chalet Restaurants, a family dining chain operated by a Toronto-based company called Foodcorp Limited. The first Swiss Chalet opened in downtown Toronto in 1953. By the 1970's the chain had expanded significantly. By 1978, when Von Ferst went organizing, there were about 20 stores in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta and the number would double in the next few years. Foodcorp was a wholly owned subsidiary of Canadian foodservice conglomerate Cara Operations Limited. Best known for its flight catering operations, the company also operated air terminal restaurants and bars, gift shops, a hotel, and a chain of restaurants called Steak 'n Burger. Foodcorp operated the Swiss Chalet Restaurants and a fast food chain called Harvey's Hamburger Restaurants. We should note that Foodcorp was acquired by Cara sometime in the mid-1970's and, until the mid 1980's operated quite independently from its parent company. The two maintained separate offices (Foodcorp at 234 Bloor Street West and Cara at 55 York Street in Toronto), separate management structures and separate labour relations functions. By the late 70's, the parent company, Cara, was already significantly unionized and had long standing relationships with a number of different unions. It is quite possible that the parent company and its labour relations managers knew little, if anything, of what was going on at its subsidiary.

The union that Von Ferst headed was called the Canadian Union of Restaurant and Related Employees (CURRE - pronounced "curry"). CURRE surfaced in 1975 when it received voluntary recognition for nine of Foodcorp's Harvey's Restaurants. It is believed that collective agreements with a term from 1975 to 1978 were entered into for these stores and that union dues were deducted from their employees, but beyond this, little is known of CURRE's involvement with them.

Starting in October 1978 and up to the spring of 1979, Von Ferst, who billed himself as the union's General Manager, organized and obtained certification for 31 locations, most of these in Toronto and Southern Ontario. The table below provides a picture of what he accomplished and the scope of the campaign. Locations across Southern Ontario were organized and certified sometimes with multiple applications proceeding before the Labour Relations Board on the same day. All of Von Ferst's applications were granted automatic certificates meaning that he'd signed up at least 55% of the workers at each location. Von Ferst even found time to squeeze in a store in Calgary and four in Montreal. As if that wasn't enough, in the midst of this blur of organizing, Von Ferst bargained agreements, separate three-year deals (commencing from the date of certification) for each location.

All of this he accomplished single-handedly (not until the fall of 79 did Von Ferst take on an assistant, a Swiss Chalet worker named Cathy Perry). The union's address of record during most of his campaign was a house on Featherhead Crescent in Mississauga (not until December of 1980, would the union move to an office building at 3120 Bloor Street West in the west end of Toronto). A post office box and a telephone answering service, according to the Mystery Union article, were his primary communications apparatus.

More surprising than Von Ferst's efficiency was the complete lack of opposition from the company. Von Ferst encountered no employer opposition at all - no petitions from objecting workers, no technicalities, no challenges to his membership evidence, no arguments about the scope of the bargaining unit (each certificate was for a combined full and part time unit). Nothing. It could be that the employer was a most enlightened organization that would not think of exerting any influence over its workers about joining a union. In theory that would be possible, but events that unfolded in the fall of 1979 make that unlikely.

CURRE in a Hurry

With Von Ferst's campaign moving along at a rapid clip, the competition arrived. In the fall of 1979, the Hotel and Restaurant and Bartenders International Union (the earlier incarnation of HERE) organized a Swiss Chalet on Eglinton Ave. E. in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. On October 4, 1979, it applied to the OLRB for certification. In documents filed on October 12, 1979 with the OLRB, HERE made a number of allegations as to what happened next. As these allegations were never heard by the OLRB, we have chosen not to disclose the names of individuals identified in this document.

"Sometime near the end of August, 1979, [a CURRE organizer], whom the Applicant believes to be a representative of CURRE attended at the Eglinton Store for which the Applicant is seeking certification. [CURRE organizer] had a meal at the restaurant and spoke to the waitresses about CURRE. Following her meal, she left her card with a telephone number and suggested if the employees were interested to give her a call.

Approximately two weeks later, the Respondent's Regional Supervisor, was at the restaurant and spoke to the waitresses. He said one of the union representatives had approached him and told him the employees had kicked her out of this restaurant. He showed the employees some paper, which he said was the union contact. When an employee asked to see it, he refused to show it to her. He then allowed one employee to look at a list of benefits, supposedly enjoyed by union members at other locations. When an employee said the paper did not look like a contract, [the Regional Supervisor] said it was not a contract but only a list of the benefits. He suggested that if they wanted to see the contract they would have to call the union representative.

One of the employees asked [the Regional Supervisor] why management was talking about the union. He said he had heard the employees were discussing another union. [The Regional Supervisor] said he felt this union (meaning CURRE) is the best, and then added that choice is up to the girls.

On Monday October 8, 1979, approximately thirty-one employees were brought to the Eglinton Restaurant from other locations in Toronto where CURRE holds the bargaining rights. Most if not all of these employees, have continued to work at the Eglinton location. No employees at Eglinton have been laid off, and the result has been a significant overstaffing.

One of these additional employees who worked for approximately two hours on Monday October 8, 1979, was waitress... whom the Applicant believes is a CURRE union steward at the Respondent's O'Connor Drive restaurant.

On Tuesday, October 9, 1979, [the CURRE union steward] attended at the Eglinton Restaurant, although she did not work. She spoke to approximately seven waitresses and told them she wanted to speak to them. At approximately 2:30 p.m., [the CURRE union steward] took the waitresses into the dispatcher's office. Present at this meeting were... a CURRE organizer, [the CURRE union steward], an unidentified blonde woman, and the seven waitresses.

At this meeting, [the CURRE organizer] introduced himself as a CURRE organizer. He said he was here to talk to them and had heard they were going to sign up for another union. He said what these people had to offer them was absolutely nothing. He referred to the Applicant as a "gangster union." [The CURRE organizer] then read from a sheet of paper various wage rates and benefits and said this is what we have to offer you. The meeting lasted from approximately 2:30 to 3:45 p.m., when all the employees were supposed to be working. However, the additional staff that had been transferred from the other restaurants was able to handle the work.

Following this meeting, [the CURRE union steward] spoke to one of the employees in the restaurant. She said you girls had better sign for this union because management can close this store down for a week, two weeks, three weeks - however long they felt like it.

While all this was happening, managers and supervisors were present in the restaurant and nothing was said to any of the employees.

On Wednesday, October 10, 1979, [the CURRE union steward] again attended at the restaurant, although she did not work. She went into the kitchen and attempted to convince the kitchen staff to sign membership cards with CURRE. The Respondent's assistant manager was in his office next to the kitchen He then left his office and [the CURRE union steward] went into this office. She was joined by a chef [a front line supervisory job]

[The chef] called the kitchen staff individually into the manager's office. The employees were asked to sign membership cards with CURRE. The employees were threatened with loss of their jobs if they did not sign. [The chef] told employees to sign the card or they'll close the store down.

Later on Wednesday October 10, 1979...employees were called individually into the office to sign CURRE membership cards. The employees were told to sign a card or punch out and go home. They were told that if they did not sign, they would be fired. They were told if the other union got in, there were not going to be given anything; before the company gave in to that union the store would be closed down."

CURRE applied for certification at the Eglinton Ave. store shortly after the alleged events occurred but withdrew its application on the date of the hearing. HERE was certified October 25, 1979. For the next several years, it would be the only Swiss Chalet store whose staff was represented by anyone other than CURRE. Whether it was HERE's unexpected victory at the Eglinton Ave. store or just impatience to get it over with, the company decided early in October to give Von Ferst a little assistance.

Early in October of 1979, Foodcorp's Industrial Relations Manager, Kevin Boyd, an ex-Toronto police officer, retained Intertec Security and Investigation, a Toronto security firm, to conduct what the firm would go on to call a "health check" at the seven Swiss Chalets that were still unorganized. Officially, the health check was an investigation into pilfering and staff morale. Unofficially, it was to assist CURRE with its organizing. Undercover operatives were placed in each of the seven unorganized locations in late October of that year. Posing as waitresses, the operatives would use whatever opportunities presented them to encourage the other workers to join CURRE.

These activities were to become the subject of proceedings before the OLRB several years later. During those proceedings, the Board found that the company had indeed engaged the services of the security firm for purposes of assisting CURRE and had a lot to say about this violation of the Labour Relations Act. This excerpt from the Board's decision, issued in 1995 (and about which we will learn much more in our future installments) sheds some light on how the operatives were recruited and what their instructions were.

Margaret Salisbury was one of the seven operatives Intertec sent to Swiss Chalet restaurants in October 1979. She had been hired by Intertec as a security guard in August, 1979. After she had worked in that capacity at various locations for several weeks, she asked the personnel manager for a transfer to different work. In early October she was called to a meeting with Barry Wilson [an Intertec supervisor] at Intertec's offices. There were several others at the meeting, including three women whom Salisbury got to know later that year when they all worked as strike replacement supplied by Intertec to Fotomat. Those three were Luba Kurman, Joy Nadeau and Laurie Burns, whom the documentary evidence establishes were three of the operatives sent by Intertec to Swiss Chalet restaurants in October. The meeting had two parts. In the first, Wilson described field work in general terms. At the end of that part, the participants were invited to leave if they were not interested. They stayed. Wilson then told them that the client was Foodcorp, and that they would each be sent to one of its Swiss Chalet restaurants, where they were to apply to local management for a job. If they were not hired within two days, they were to call in and arrangements would be made to ensure their employment. They were told there were two unions; one with a long name which Salisbury wrote down as CURRE, and another with a long name which she could not remember, she thought it had the world "North America" in it. While working at their assigned restaurants, they were to persuade employees there to join CUREE. They were to push the union without being conspicuous. Their "contact" with the union would be Cathy Perry."

This excerpt, from the same OLRB decision, described how it was done:

"She [an operative named Catherine Littlefield} became friendly with a group of waitresses right away, and went out drinking with about seven of them three or four days after she started work. They started "talking union". They were fed up with their working conditions. They went back to Littlefield's hotel room, where she had a book about unions from the public library, to continue the discussion. When that discussion had reached a suitable stage, Littlefield went to the telephone book, took out the note of the name and number she had been given, and pretended to copy that name and telephone number from the telephone book. She then gave the note to one of the waitresses, who the next day had union cards and was signing employees. Littlefield signed and paid a dollar, which she later claimed as an expense."

[United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and Cabral Foods Inc., et al. OLRB File No. 2628-83-R]

The strategy worked like a charm. By the end of November, CURRE was certified in the seven remaining locations. Five of these certs went through on the same day - November 20, 1979. Two or three additional stores were organized in the spring of 1980, one in Calgary and the others, new locations in Southern Ontario. Most of the new bargaining units consisted of between 40 and 50 members and one thing was for very certain though: whatever members the union acquired, it was intent on keeping. It's constitution permitted merger with another union only where 95% of the total membership voted in favour of such a move.

And then, as quietly as he had appeared, Von Ferst vanished.

A monumental feat of organizing had been accomplished. Was it all on the up-and-up? Unusual but within the realm of what could be reasonably possible? Or was CURRE a sweetheart union - either created or retained by a company concerned about impending unionization and wanting to choose its union? We ask you to consider the facts and come to your own conclusions. A useful basis for your deliberations would seem to us to be the "balance of probabilities" (the standard of proof used by arbitration boards and various labour relations tribunals) - Considering the facts, what is more probable? - and the principle of the "reasonable person" - What would a reasonable person conclude?

CURRE's Organizing Successes, October 1978 - May 1980

Store Location

Certification Date

1. 269 Queen St. E., Brampton

2. 2955 Bloor St. W., Toronto

3. 234 Bloor St. W., Toronto

4. 1225 Dundas St. E., Mississauga

5. 3550 boul des Sources, Dollard des Ormeaux, PQ

6. 1113 Finch Ave. W., Toronto

7. 362 Yonge St., Toronto

8. 2930 Carling Ave., Ottawa

9. 1110 O'Connor Dr., Toronto

10. 1955 boul St. Martin, Laval, PQ

11. 5605 boul Taschereau, Brossard, PQ

12. 999 Chemin Chambly, Longueuil, PQ

13. 950 Lawrence Ave. W., Toronto

14. 260 Dundas St., London

15. 180 Steeles Ave. W., Thornhill

16. 549 Kerr St., Oakville

17. 7240 Woodbine Ave., Markam

18. 540 Montreal Rd., Ottawav

19. 1881 Leslie St., Don Mills

20. 4452 Sheppard Ave. E., Scarborough

21. 735 Queenston Rd., Hamilton

22. 1180 Upper James St., Hamilton

23. 1415 Yonge St., Toronto

24. 269 Rexdale Blvd., Rexdale

25. 267 Weber St., Waterloo

26. 1206 Dundas St. E., Whitby

November 20 ,1979

27. 2422 Fairview St., Burlington

28. 6666 Lundy's Lane, Niagara Falls

29. 2840 Memorial Dr. N.E., Calgary

30. 1426 London Rd., Sarnia

31. 6645 Tecumseh Rd. E., Windsor

Coming up next: Sweetheart or Biz-Union?

Sources:
OLRB Reports, ALRB, BCGT Quebec

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