The owners of Tim Hortons are warning shareholders that union organizing and campaigns advocating for a living-wage for workers could threaten their business model and shareholder profits, according to company documents.

Tim Hortons – whose parent company Restaurant Brands International (RBI) also owns Burger King and Popeyes – has come under fire in recent years for trying to slash worker’s benefits in Ontario under Premier Doug Ford and for obstructing tiny wage increases elsewhere in Canada.

In documents filed in April, which were reviewed by The Breach, RBI points to $5 billion in revenues last year, $750 million in profits, and large dividends flowing to shareholders that are nearly twice as high as they were in 2015.

Despite this, the company warned its profits could be at risk should activist campaigns promoting “living-wage opinions” hamper the reputation of its brands like Tim Hortons. 

In a financial report submitted to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company’s board of directors warns the “potential impact of union organizing efforts” could compromise RBI’s significant profitability.

They also note their “labor-intensive business model” could be hit by the impact of labor costs.” 

Critics say the comments show that RBI remains an explicitly anti-labour company committed to generating high sales revenues and not paying their workers enough to meet basic needs.

The Breach reviewed the filings of the company’s main competitors, like McDonald’s and Wendy’s, and found no similar concerns around living wages.

Tim Hortons employs around 100,000  workers in Canada, many of whom struggle with low pay and poor working conditions, according to union organizers.

“Lots of Tim Horton’s workers want to bring us into our workplace and improve their conditions,” said United Food and Commercial Workers Ontario Region Director Debora De Angelis, explaining workers from at least a dozen franchises have contacted the union.

“We’ve had lots of interest recently, lots of inquiries about unionizing Tim Hortons,” De Angelis said. “Workers reach out to us when they feel they are being mistreated or discriminated against, when their managers are bullying them or harassing them, or if their workplace isn’t safe.”

Restaurant Brands International considers “activist campaigns” aimed at issues like sustainability and living wages a risk to the company’s profitability, according to a 2020 annual financial report.

University of British Columbia public health professor Christopher McLeod told The Breach that the company is skilled at figuring out how to maximize productivity from its workers.

“But the value that they’re creating isn’t being shared and that doesn’t change in a lot of cases unless a higher wage is legislated,” McLeod said. “This really comes down to Tim Hortons and its parent company wanting to put its profits before workers’ health.”

In 2018, a wave of protests took place across the country after several Ontario Tim Hortons franchises tried to claw back benefits and paid breaks from workers after the Liberal government raised its minimum wage to $14 amid a growing Fight for $15 movement.

Last year, RBI’s board of directors “unanimously” advised against a shareholder resolution that would have required it to report what the company has done to ensure “decent work” standards in its franchisee operations. 

The resolution marked the second attempt in as many years by the Atkinson Foundation to establish “minimum requirements and standards for RBI branded operations and franchisees to ensure decent work,” according to the company’s 2020 proxy statement for shareholders, and to “ensure that its direct and franchisee workforce is protected.”

RBI recognizes the threat of “union organizing” against its bottom line, particularly given the company’s “labor-intensive” business model and what it recognizes as a “long-term trend toward higher wages”.

Andy Spence of Workers’ United Canada, which represents workers at two Tim Hortons locations in Manitoba, says the company’s defence of low-wage work is reflected in its cross-franchise anti-union activities. 

“They obviously aren’t fond of employees forming unions because it means better employee protections, the ability to bargain against your employer, and the right to dispute employer decisions,” Spence said.

Early last year, a Tim Hortons franchise in Winnipeg locked out Workers United members who were demanding a 10-cent-an-hour wage increase. 

“This really comes down to Tim Hortons and its parent company wanting to put its profits before workers’ health,” says UBC professor Christopher McLeod. The above graph, from RBI’s 2020 financial report, shows the company’s stock performance since 2015.

A spokesperson for RBI, which is headquartered in Toronto and is the fifth largest operator of fast food services in the world, said that listing “risk factors” to its business is a regulatory obligation.

“Because our brands are important to our business, our risk factors include issues related to perceptions and preferences, which may vary significantly,” the RBI spokesperson told The Breach in an emailed statement. “We work very hard to mitigate all of these risks and many of them may never occur. Our franchisees are expected to always follow all of the local labour standards and laws where they operate and maintain the high standards that are synonymous with our brands.”

Spence says the owners of the Winnipeg Tim Hortons have also used the services of lawyers associated with Canadian LabourWatch Association, an anti-union organization that helps employers decertify unions and keep them out of workplaces. 

“If these franchise owners can pay lawyers to do their bargaining and respond to grievances, absolutely Tim Hortons and their franchises can pay a living wage,” said Spence.