Workers lose jobs after successful union drive turned away by Paul Moist’s office
by Priscillia Lefebvre
Ottawa | Female Residence Fellows at Carleton University in Ottawa were met with blatant sexism and were told to “calm down” and to “stop blowing things out of proportion” when they approached Housing and Conference Services in October of this year with accounts of being actively harassed and intimidated by a male coworker.
Earlier this fall, another Fellow had brought concerns to management about being targeted by a student through physical intimidation ,verbal threats, and cyberbullying since early September. The floor she lived on was trashed and the door to her room was tagged with sexually derogatory slurs, but it fell on deaf ears. Management allowed the harassment to continue, undermining her authority to issue sanctions to students. According to sources consulted for this article, the situation finally spun out of control two months later resulting in a brawl breaking out on the floor involving approximately 50 students.
Residence Fellows are among the most overworked and precariously employed on a university campus. They are the front line workers for students living in residence and are expected to maintain a high level of visibility. Carleton University describes the Residence Fellow position as encompassing a scope of roles including “leader, administrator, facilitator, and educator.” The position is usually reserved for upper-year undergraduate student-workers who deal with a multitude of issues in their jobs from underage drinking to sexual assault and suicide intervention.
Residence Fellows had been organizing to form a union for several weeks since early November, putting themselves at great risk in the process. A union could have raised awareness of the issues Residence Fellows face as university employees, pressured the University to sit down and negotiate a fair collective agreement, and allowed workers to grieve Housing Services’ failure to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Residence Fellows were succeeding until they received shocking news on December 1 of this year from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) – which boasts a membership of over 627,000 workers – that the union would not be accepting them after all.
The decision came from on high: the President’s office at CUPE National. Once the news surfaced the organizers were outed to management at Carleton. Workers were threatened with being fired for even mentioning the word “union.” Organizers were cut off from any support, leaving them to deal with potentially volatile situations on their own. Isolation and retaliation made their working conditions intolerable.
By December 7, three workers, including Marina Tronina and Miranda Moores, resigned as a result. Because their employment was tied to their room and board on campus, this meant losing their homes as well. Moores explains, “We can’t work there anymore. Understand we didn’t resign simply because the environment was hostile; we resigned because we could not work there safely. It is too dangerous.”
A union campaign squashed… by a union
CUPE Local 4600, already representing Teaching Assistants and Contract Instructors on campus, had been working with the Residence Fellows to push for their inclusion into the Local. Their membership of about 2500 workers shares many of the same concerns including overwork, harassment, and job security. On November 21, Colette Proctor, CUPE National Organizing Representative, sent an email stating, “as long as the Local is fine with the possibility of having to cover the group I think we can organize them.” Thirty-one union cards were signed by November 24 reaching the certification requirement, before the President’s Office at CUPE National killed the campaign a week later.
When asked by Local 4600 on December 12 why the go ahead to sign cards was given before an official decision had been made, Proctor responded, “I didn’t foresee National having a problem organizing the group.” If staff at the Organizing Department was so certain that the campaign would be approved, why did CUPE National ultimately decide to turn its back on these precarious workers?
Their reasoning was weak, nonsensical, and indicates a clear lack of understanding of the experiences of young student-workers in the post-secondary sector. According to Francois Bellemare, Assistant Director of Organizing and Regional Services, CUPE National feels that the union would not be able to maintain appropriate services and “make a big difference” to these workers since they work on limited one-year contracts. Nor are they considered to be in an employer-employee relationship with the University since they work for room and board. This is rather alarming considering members of Local 4600 only work four-month contracts and Residence Fellows are members of the Residence Life Staff who do indeed work for the University and pay income tax.
Workers left behind now have to deal with the aftermath. “We can no longer work there and Housing Services are now free to exploit workers who are still there. All the organizers are gone,” says Tronina.
Dan Preece, Vice-President of Unit 2 at Local 4600, elaborates on the situation, “There were options before. Now they are abandoned and this has created a poisonous environment. Workers are either too scared to say something or they have absolutely no faith in unions… Nobody should be signing a card if the decision from National could go either way. CUPE National needs to consider the human cost here.”
The “Year of the New and Young Worker”
It is no secret that the deteriorating conditions for young workers have them struggling to keep up with rent increases and the cost of living as well as lumbered with student debt. CUPE’s own statistics they show a 30% drop in full-time employment among young workers. CUPE named 2013 the “Year of the New and Young Worker” and states that it recognizes young workers as especially vulnerable to exploitative working conditions through precarious contract positions characterized by minimum wage and no benefits.
CUPE National is on record as saying that “the issues facing young workers need to be connected to all aspects of the labour movement.” In light of the Residence Fellows, this statement is reduced to empty rhetoric and fist waving for the cameras.
Solidarity For…Never? The sad state of bureaucratized unions
With the right to collective bargaining under attack by anti-union governments and bosses, fighting back matters and there is strength in solidarity. The labour movement has a strong history of workers who risked their lives demanding respect, safety, and fair treatment in the workplace. CUPE National’s recent actions puts that history to shame and serves as a harsh reminder of how bureaucratized union institutions can actually impede workers fighting for their rights.
The Residence Fellows at Carleton University deserve to be treated with dignity and respect by their employer. It should not be too much to ask that the same be expected of Canada’s largest union, which claims to be “committed to improving the quality of life for workers.”
At the time of writing CUPE National President, Paul Moist has yet to agree to meet with either the Residence Fellows or Local 4600 about this matter. Nor has he taken any responsibility or offered compensation of any kind to the three workers who lost their jobs and their homes as a direct result of this debacle.