A porta-potty has become the latest pawn in an ongoing labour dispute in the town of Greater Napanee.
In a post to Facebook Sunday evening, Jan. 9, 2022, a group called “Strike Support for Lennox & Addington Interval House Employees” accused the Mayor of Napanee, Marg Isbester, of using her position to help a member of the Board of Interval House have a porta-potty removed from near the picket line where Interval House employees are currently striking. The portable toilet in question had been rented from a local business and originally given the green light by a member of Town Staff.
The workers on strike have been on the line now for 11 weeks, seemingly with no end in sight. When reached for comment, Brooke McIlvaney, an employee at the shelter for women and children escaping domestic violence, took a moment of warmth in her car to speak by phone.
“We have been waiting since before Christmas for [Sue Weir, CEO of Lennox and Addington Interval House] to return a proposal,” she said, noting that negotiations have stalled.
“We were in negotiations before Christmas and on the Tuesday [Dec. 14], and it felt like we were making really good progress. There were some really good talks about how things could move forward and changing the language around to help it meet both of our needs and that kind of thing. And there was a mediator involved. And then [Sue Weir] just disappeared. She told us that she would be back with a proposal the next day,” McIlvaney explained. “We waited the entire day. And she never showed up. We were waiting at the meeting room in the hotel to get back on the Zoom or whatever, but we just resumed picketing.”
McIlvaney said that the strikers are aware of at least two “scab” workers who have taken on roles both at Interval House and remotely for outreach work: “So, [Sue Weir] no longer cares about making this end quickly by returning to the table.”
On Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, the porta-potty was delivered to the site by a rental company.
Mike Armstrong, a representative of Unifor (the union to which Lennox and Addington Interval House employees belong), explained, “Well, I can’t say for sure it was the mayor, but I talked to the gentleman at the city, Mr. Mike Nobes (Michael Nobes, General Manager of Growth and Expansion). He was the one that gave us permission to put the porta-potty up before Christmas. Two days later, I get a call from the guy at the rental agency [saying] he got a call from the city to remove it.”
“So,” Armstrong continued, “I called back Mr. Nobes and very politely just asked him what’s going on. He goes, ‘Well, I received a call.’ I said, ‘Well, I guess the Mayor has been busy today.’”
Armstrong said that Nobes responded with “No comment,” noting that it’s not possible to say whether or not Mayor Isbester made the official call, but that, either way, “it was a call from somebody in the city.”
“Then [Nobes] goes on to tell me he didn’t know where it was going. I said, ‘Well that’s not true; you were looking on Google Maps when I told you exactly where it was going – 17 feet from the curb, so there’s no obstruction of vehicles [other] than when we are standing on the curb.’
Armstrong relayed that Nobes responded that his recommendation regarding the matter was that the porta-potty was blocking sightlines, and should therefore be removed. This finding, Nobes said, was based on an inspection, according to Armstong.
Of particular contention for Armstrong is the way that the inspection was conducted.
“At first [Nobes] said he was there himself to do an inspection, and I said ‘Well, someone was there at 7 o’clock at night because I saw him,’” Armstrong recalled, noting that the Town of Greater Napanee employee he’d seen on site was not Mr. Nobes. When asked why the Town would conduct such an inspection at 7 p.m. when there isn’t much traffic, Nobes said, “Well, that is my recommendation,” according to Armstrong.
Armstrong also pointed out that the Town employees “keep saying [they] have no jurisdiction [on that road allowance], that is the [responsibility of] County. Well, if they don’t have jurisdiction, how can this gentleman make a recommendation?”
Subsequently, on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, Armstrong and a small group of Unifor representatives — not Interval House staff — picketed at Mayor Isbester’s home in Napanee. Asked for comment, Mayor Isbester said a statement from the Town Chief Administrative Officer, John Pinsent, would be forthcoming.
At the end of the workday on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, that statement was posted to a local Facebook group that had been discussing the issue, and subsequently on the Town Facebook page, with Mr. Pinsent explaining, “I would like to make a comment on this issue in the forum in which it is being addressed, such that it reaches the intended audience. This is meant as a simple statement of fact and not to be argumentative with residents stating their personal opinions.”
He went on to address “accusations of political interference with respect to the placement and subsequent removal of porta-potties on the site of the picketing,” admitting the request for the removal was made to Town Staff, who then subsequently removed the potty, noting, “If there was confusion as to whether it was permitted in the exact location it was originally placed, that would have been a misinterpretation with no ill intent.”
“These types of decisions and recommendations are made by staff based on bylaws and the application of provincial legislation. These decisions are not made by politicians; to the contrary, these actions are made by public servants (Town Staff), all of whom work for me,” he pointed out saying, “I attest that there has been no political interference.”
In his statement, Pinsent pointed out that “County of Lennox & Addington By-Law #2697-98 regulates the placement of items in the road allowance and authorizes removal of such items where no permission has been provided.”
In a follow-up post on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, McIlvaney writes, “The town did not take any interest in helping to make this work, talking to us about what the issue was… we would have worked to rectify it, but we were never given the opportunity… This isn’t about a porta-potty to us, but about people in power continuing to use their influence to get what they want. The irony in this is unbelievable, as this is the exact issue we are having with updating our collective agreement; people in power using their influence to get what they want and leave us out in the cold.”