Shelter workers at the Lennox and Addington Interval House (LAIH) initiated a strike on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, in response to what they call an “insulting offer” made at the end of over a year of negotiations with their employer.
The workers are represented by Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, which represents 315,000 workers in every major area of the economy. The current collective agreement has been expired for more than one year and covers approximately 20 workers at LAIH. The unit voted 100 per cent in favour of strike action. Workers are seeking the same or similar processes and benefits that sister agencies in neighbouring communities have, aiming to address issues of representation, disciplinary actions, and job postings.
On Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, Unifor representatives, Katha Fortier, Assistant to the National President, and Gord Currie, Unifor Local 414 President, will join their striking colleagues on the picket line for Day 5 of their strike.
“Unifor members at LAIH are doing life-saving work in their community, and the very least they deserve is for respect and a fair collective agreement,” said Currie. “Members leafletted in the summer and community members answered their calls for support then, and we’ll need that support once again.”
“The decision to strike is never taken lightly, but members at the Lennox and Addington Interval House are firmly united in this decision. They know that workers and clients of the shelter deserve better than what management has offered at the table,” said Jerry Dias, Unifor National President. “Members told their employer that enough is enough – the years of working short-staffed must end, both for their well-being and for clients of the homes.”
Picket lines are set up at the Interval House Outreach Office at 37 Dundas Street in Napanee, where management operates. Two of the workers on the picket line, Brooke McIlvaney and Brooke Phillips-Janisse, explained the situation as they see it.
“We’ve been trying to negotiate a new contract for over a year and when negotiations were stalled about issues with contract language we took a strike vote,” said McIllvaney. “Even after the deadline, we agreed to 10 more days to return to the bargaining table in hopes it would never come to a strike, but unfortunately, the employer used those 10 days, not prepare for fair negotiation or reasonable offer, but to prepare to force us to walk out knowing that they weren’t coming close to what we are asking for.”
The workers are looking for contract language that is equal to their sister agencies, Three Oaks Shelter in Belleville and Kingston Interval House.
Mike Armstrong a consultant who works on bargaining and negotiation for the Local 414 unit, said, “This is not about money. This is all about language in the collective agreement.”
He pointed out that the sister agencies are allowed union representation at disciplinary meetings, while, “LAIH workers, they don’t have that right. I mean, all this stuff has been settled in the 60s in the 70s. Even time for the committee to properly do an investigation of somebody’s discipline, they have to do that research on their own time at night.”
One of the biggest issues, Armstrong pointed out, is fair and proper job postings. “Currently, the employer does not post jobs. It says it is up to their opinion if they post jobs, well that’s just archaic,” he expressed.
Indeed, Phillips-Janice reports that when jobs are vacant, either because of a leave of absence or because someone has left the agency entirely, often the vacancies aren’t filled. Rather than filling open positions, the workers describe managers working union jobs and overworking casual staff with full-time hours “with none of the protections or benefits or even the rate of pay of full-time staff.”
“The job we do is emotionally taxing and those benefits are there to protect our well-being so that we can continue to serve our community to the best of our abilities, rather than a place of exhaustion,” pointed out Phillips-Janisse. “Monetary issues were minor and barely discussed because the things that would really make a difference to the working environment couldn’t be agreed on.“
“We care for the residents and community members that we serve,” said McIlvaney, “and we’re hoping that the employer will actually take a look at what we’re asking for and return to the table as soon as possible. We know that even if the phones are being answered and the doors are open, the level of service that some of the most vulnerable women in our community are receiving is sorely lacking.”
The two women said that, over the weekend, management didn’t call outreach service clients from around the county to report what was going on, causing vulnerable people to drive sometimes over an hour, only to arrive at the shelter and find their appointment cancelled.
“We have 16 to 18 employees who are not at their job, their caseload for outreach alone includes 20 to 25 clients that are not in the shelter,” pointed out Armstrong. “So now, they’re trying to run the shelter with the executive director and two managers and we already know that services are not being provided to people in the shelter because the residents come and talk to our members saying ‘This is not happening. That’s not happening.’ We just had one come out now and so there’s a lady in the shelter who’s blind and she can’t even get downstairs can’t do anything because there is nobody to help her.”
Armstrong continued, “The most astonishing thing is, when we took action on Friday afternoon, the employer put a male security guard inside the shelter – that’s just fundamentally wrong. Abused women are leaving a relationship because they’re abused by a man, so you introduce a male security guard in there? That’s just mind-boggling.”
On that particular matter, McIlvaney conveyed that, while at the shelter on the afternoon of Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, “a client came out and said that they haven’t been sleeping since the strike started because of a male security guard being in the building. She said last night was the first night they slept because there wasn’t one there.”
On the part of Interval House, Executive Director Sue Weir released a statement to local media, which reads, “This is a public information message from Lennox Addington Interval House that on Friday, Oct. 29th at 2 PM, we will be experiencing a labour disruption. We are disappointed that conciliation did not result in an agreement with our local bargaining unit. Our services remain open and we are committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of our clients. We will keep the community updated on our website and social media channels. Thank you for your patience and understanding during this difficult time.”
Armstrong called this statement “Just incredible.”
“She says ‘business as usual.’ It is not business as usual; we had residents of the shelter come out in the last two days who were telling us that are not getting the services that [Interval House] used to provide, they were afraid of the male security guard in there. We had people from outreach come in for an appointment with one of the counsellors who were never told that their appointment was cancelled,” he said. “It’s not business as usual.”
In fact, the ‘public statement,’ which appeared over the weekend on other local media outlets, doesn’t appear on the LAIH web page, Facebook or Twitter. LAIH had not replied to request for comment at time of publication.