By Barbara Cape, President of SEIU-West
These past few months, weeks and days have been incredibly busy for all of us. There have been so many changes suggested, recommended, mused about in our province, that everyday seems to bring a new challenge or update. There is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty in our daily lives as a result.
Some of this is due to the province’s budget woes. For some, it’s due to the creation of a provincial health authority and the lack of clear communications around the process or the status of our jobs. For others, it’s seeing service cuts and layoffs in the education and community-based sector. For our Direct Care Worker (DCW) brothers and sisters in Outlook, it’s being locked out of their workplaces by their employer because they won’t accept scraps at the bargaining table any more.
The story of our members who work at Variety Place in Outlook is an incredible one! They were organized with SEIU-West in early 2011 and began the hard work of training member leaders and bargaining a collective agreement. In 2013, it was time to get back to the bargaining table – and they went back over and over and over, in good faith, in order to achieve a fair agreement. Sure, they got a wage reopener of 17 cents in those 4 years to ‘tide them over’ – but that ain’t much!
The top end of the pay scale is $17.49/hour – they do much of the exact same work as a Continuing Care Assistant (CCA) – but get paid substantially less. They face many of the safe workplace challenges that we do in other sectors: violent residents, unsafe equipment (or lack of equipment) and funding shortfalls that cripple their ability to provide quality nutrition or programming. But still – $17.49/hour!
The staff bring in kitchen equipment from their own homes like blenders or can openers, because their employer will not purchase them. The employer gets funding from the Ministry of Social Services, and while we have asked for an audit and transparency from both the ministry and the employer, we have not received it. Variety Place is running an exceptional surplus: they are over $300,000 to the good – but nutrition is questionable; there is not enough staff; and there is very low pay.
Some would say (and have said) that these workers knew what they were getting when they were hired; or that if they don’t like it, they should just quit. Well you and I both know that those are false options. In our working lives, just like our personal and community lives, we are supposed to make progress, to continually strive to be better. And that is no different with the locked out workers at Variety Place. Their employer has given up on being better – on reaching a fair collective agreement for all parties.
And still – $17.49/hour! These members served strike notice after bargaining for four years because they needed to make a stand for the good of their participants and their work.
Four years!?! Yes, because they had faith that their work was valued; that it was recognized and that their skill and professionalism was worth something. And it is!
But Variety Place is trying to play hard ball with the lives of many people who are vulnerable, who live in the community and believe that this work matters… so they locked out the workers of Variety Place. They thought our members would just roll over. But since May 21, they have been picketing, leafleting, chanting and working hard to get their employer to end the lock out, bring the residents home and get back to the bargaining table.
We all feel the uncertainty of the tremendous amount of change in our province…but at some point, we all need to make a stand and say ‘no more’! These twenty five active brothers and sisters are doing it – and so can we!