More money for their beer

Unionized servers, artificially low prices and newbie bosses mean students often pay twice for suds
Simon Hayter

Ask a pub owner to describe a dream location and it would have to be where thousands of thirsty twentysomethings pass by each day. That’s why Noah Davis-Power is dumbfounded that the Breezeway, the bar run by his student union, has lost roughly $120,000 a year for two years. Its owner, the Memorial University of Newfoundland Student Union, has a total budget of $1.2 million, most of which comes from mandatory student fees. “If you worked it out real quick,” says Davis-Power, “each student’s losing $10 a year [at the bar]. That’s two beer poured down the drain.”

Campus pubs propped up by student fees are surprisingly common, due to bad management, high labour costs and pressure from students for artificially low prices. By the time the University of Windsor’s Thirsty Scholar pub shut down in April, it was more than $1 million in debt.

Fees collected by the Simon Fraser Student Society have long subsidized its campus pub, the Highland. The year before Keenan Midgley took over as treasurer in 2011, it lost $314,000. It had new tables, mountain views and paid no rent, but unionized student servers earned $14.50 per hour plus tips (now $15.27 plus tips, thanks to annual cost-of-living increases), while off-campus competitors paid the $9 minimum wage. Contracts guaranteed a minimum of two shifts weekly and no less than four hours per shift, even when the pub was not busy. The executive considered contracting out the service, but the collective agreement prevented it. “Every year people are like, ‘Let’s fix the pub, let’s make it profitable,’ ” he says. “They don’t understand how restrictive it is to manage.” On top of that, the non-unionized pub manager could only be replaced with a hefty severance package. The pub lost $309,000 during Midgley’s term. The next administration replaced the pub manager anyway, at a “significant” cost.

Labour unions have been organizing workers on campus for decades, and student employees—who work at many campus pubs—are more open to unionization, says labour expert Mark Thompson, professor emeritus at UBC. “The more savvy workers will have observed the vagaries of student politics and want the protections that a collective agreement provides.”

Indeed, unions hold leadership elections each year, and it takes time for new people to get up to speed. “With the board changing every year, a lot of people don’t understand what they can accomplish, what their power is, basically, until the middle of the term,” says Midgley. “Once they get around to doing something, it’s often too late.” On top of that, they usually rely on full-time staff to show them the ropes and risk alienating them if they don’t sign favourable contracts. Midgley’s executive spent much of the term dealing with another labour issue and there simply wasn’t time to tackle the Highland, too.

John Flipse, the SFU pub’s new boss, faced complaints when he cancelled the weekly $2 burger special and charged students coming into the pub on Wings Wednesday a cover charge when they stayed past 9 p.m. Flipse won the burger battle but lost the cover-charge challenge, despite reminding the board that the Highland lost $420,000 last year.

Karla Voth was fresh out of college when she was hired in 2011 to take over SUDS, the money-losing pub owned by the Brandon University Students’ Union. Food costs were out of control and the bar was paying bouncers to watch over an often empty room. Then the faculty went on strike for 45 days. After laying off wait staff and advertising to picketing professors, she lost $13,000, but the student union was pleased; her predecessor had lost more than $20,000 a year. The next year, SUDS finally turned a profit of $22,000.

Some student leaders see losses as part of the cost of doing business. Candace Simms, the executive director of external affairs for the MUN student union, says it’s more important to provide a safe space with affordable products than to break even.

The goal is the same at Queen’s University in Kingston, but the Underground nightclub and the Queen’s Pub together generate enough cash most years to cover costs plus a portion of the Alma Mater Society’s overhead.

Nicola Plummer, a vice-president of the society, says the AMS is different than most student societies in Canada because eight salaried student managers (who earn slightly more than minimum wage) run the places. They divvy up tasks and take turns overseeing student servers who earn minimum wage plus tips. By 9 p.m. on opening night, the club’s line was the longest Plummer had ever seen. So long, in fact, that she rolled up her sleeves and started clearing tables. They hit maximum capacity—370 people—within minutes.