Memorial University student blasts beer boycott

Student union says it’s standing up for young workers

“How does a bar in the middle of a university in the middle of Newfoundland lose money?,” says Noah Davis-Power. “That is absolutely astounding.”

Last year when Davis-Power was running for a spot on the Memorial University of Newfoundland Students’ Union executive, he pushed to see its budget. At first he was first told he couldn’t have it, because he might take it out of context. That’s an argument often used by Canadian student unionists who don’t want their budgets publicly available. Mid-election, MUNSU relented. It turned out the $1.1-million organization, financed mostly by a mandatory $40-a-semester fee, had lost $120,000 that year at The Breezeway, a campus bar it owns. This year it budgeted for a $161,000 loss.

Davis-Power says he expects future losses to be even higher now that MUNSU has decided to boycott Labatt’s beer to show solidarity with about 45 striking brewery workers in St. John’s.

“When you [remove] Labatt products you’re taking away choice and adding to the amount of people who aren’t going to go to The Breezeway,” he says, “you’re going to see the deficit increase.”

Not only that, MUNSU’s boycott has caused Labatt to vow it will stop sponsoring MUN student groups, which annually receive tens of thousands of dollars in cash, beer and other merchandise.

“There is no shortage of people out there looking for sponsorships and only so much money to go around,” says Wade Keller, Labatt’s director of corporate affairs in Atlantic Canada. “If you have a group that’s boycotting your product it makes no sense to spend your cash that way.”

MUNSU is undeterred. “We have been paying close attention to feedback from our members regarding this decision and many have expressed their support of the boycott,” writes Candace Simms, the director of external relations (to whom Davis-Power lost in last year’s elections).

“Since many of our members are, or soon will be, entering into the workforce, we feel the Students’ Union has an important role to play in defending the rights of young workers,” she adds. “During discussions on the boycott, members cited the importance of acting now to ensure current and future workplace equality.”

The average striking Labatt worker earned $81,000 last year, says Keller. Average earnings in Newfoundland were $48,000. He says the union and Labatt are at odds over a demand that employees start contributing to their pension plans in 2016 and pay 20 per cent of benefit costs.

As for The Breezeway’s deficits, Simms writes this: “The number one goal of the Breezeway is to provide a safe, accessible space where students can come and purchase affordable products. The Breezeway provides space for students to host free or low-cost events, employing over 40 students annually, and complimenting the other advocacy and campaigns work of the Students’ Union … Over the past year MUNSU has continued to make strides in reducing the subsidy the Breezeway receives and is committed to seeing further reductions.”

Davis-Power thinks MUNSU should start by dropping the boycott and staying out of such disputes. “Unless students are going to see benefits from it or it’s going to directly impact students, the student’s union should have no comment or position on outside political organizations or actions like a strike,” he says. “It really doesn’t matter to students if Labatt workers are on strike or not.”