April 29, 2021 - No. 36

Organizing to Get Results

Workers in Hospitality and
Post Office Speak Out

• Ongoing Demands of Workers in Hospitality Sector and Support Workers in BC Work Camps - Stephanie Fung

Organizing Postal Workers in Defence of Rights - Roland Schmidt

Organizing to Get Results

Ongoing Demands of Workers in Hospitality Sector and Support Workers in BC Work Camps

Stephanie Fung is Communications Specialist with UNITE HERE Local 40. UNITE HERE Local 40 represents workers in the hospitality sector, hotels, airports and restaurants, and cleaning and food service workers in some BC resource industry work camps.

The pandemic has devastated the hotel industry and I think that's made a huge impact on these workers for sure, including both their mental health, and health and safety conditions on the job.

These workers work on the front lines. In the work camps we have janitors and servers and people in housekeeping who clean high touch point surfaces in the hotels and in the camps. The impact has really been compounding.

Workers' mental health is severely impacted by job security concerns. Hotel workers were laid off when the pandemic hit so they have been living with that insecurity -- whether they will have a job when the pandemic is over, and some employers are firing groups of workers and putting pressure on them to lower wages and get rid of protections for their working conditions that they have won over the years.

Those who are working are concerned about how to protect themselves, unsure about whether their employers will be transparent and will communicate if there are any infections at the workplace. That was a huge concern of the janitors at the LNG Canada camp because at the start they were not being informed or getting adequate PPE to protect themselves. They joined the union last summer and have just completed a first contract. What was lacking at the beginning was PPE -- gloves, face masks, goggles -- there were not enough or they were not adequate. There were other concerns like the workload, having to work long hours, not enough breaks. When you're carrying so many supplies and have to rush to get the work done, that increases the risk of getting infected. The lack of equipment and the unmanageable workload put the workers at risk. They organized in the community and on social media to support their demands and were successful. Besides the workers who live in towns near the camp, workers fly into the camp from farther away -- like Alberta and northern BC. So, besides their safety at work they have to travel on planes and take a bus with others to the camp, where the company was not initially ensuring social distancing, making sure the buses were sanitized, and so on.

In Vancouver, the management of Hilton Metrotown Hotel locked out the workers there on April 15 after a one-day strike over the firing of dozens of workers. Pacific Gateway Hotel and the Sheraton Hotel near the airport are being used for quarantine under contract with the federal government. All the workers at Pacific Gateway -- many of them there for decades -- were replaced by workers brought in by the Red Cross. Employers are using the pandemic as a cover to get rid of long-term workers and reduce wages and working conditions to the minimum. It's incredibly illogical. The pandemic is killing people and hotels like Hilton Metrotown want to eliminate the workers who clean the hotel, including the guest rooms, at a time when we need more cleaning not less, and trained people. This should be concerning to guests, to the public. The hotels should keep the staff in order to protect the people who come to the hotel. Instead they're trying to get rid of their long-term workers and replace them with cheaper hires. The hotels should be maintaining stringent COVID-19 protocols and making sure that there are workers who are good at their jobs cleaning the hotels, not terminating those workers.

In terms of the responsibility of the provincial government, BC Labour Minister Harry Bains said last fall that the government would not get involved, that it had to be worked out between employers and employees. Workers are still continuing to talk to their MLAs and have the support of many municipal politicians, condemning the hotel's actions and demanding that workers' jobs are protected. Putting pressure on politicians so the law is amended to protect all workers in these extraordinary circumstances is ongoing. The government must intervene to protect workers' jobs -- all workers -- and stop employers using the pandemic to fire workers.

(Photos: WF, CUPW, UNITE HERE Local 40)

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Organizing Postal Workers in Defence of Rights

Roland Schmidt is the President, Edmonton Local, Canadian Union of Postal Workers

Our situation is very similar to other important sectors like health care in that leadership from the government or agencies has been lacking. They were not quick to institute the safety precautions necessary, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, and very slow to make a commitment that "Here is the protocol we need to have in place, here is the PPE that needs to be provided."

Our experience in Edmonton was that as soon as the pandemic was announced, our local office was of course discussing with Canada Post that "This is serious and what are you planning to do immediately?" There was no shortage of acknowledgments from them of how serious this was, and that they were committed to doing something. But any time we made a specific proposal -- for example, we wanted to change start times and create various shifts so that we could thin out the number of people in the workplace at once, they would say, "Okay, we don't know how we feel about that. We will have to review it and get back to you." And then two weeks later they were still reviewing, and this was a crisis. We needed specific action. It got to the point where we had a whole list of protocols we wanted implemented: staggered start times, creating additional shifts, coaching on physical distancing, sanitation kits set up so that every person would have their own kit to use to clean their work station and then dispose of the materials used to clean it, and what PPE we needed, including gloves and face masks.

We submitted the list in mid-April I think, and we said "you have until May to comply." In our collective agreement we have the right to refuse unsafe work, which is a little bit more robust than the Canada Labour Code. So we said, "We need these things implemented by x date or our members have told us that they are willing to do mass refusals of unsafe work." That is what it took to get the company finally moving on it, and then very quickly, despite their dithering for almost a month, after we made that demand and expressed our willingness to back it up, then all of a sudden all these changes happened over the course of a weekend. With the start of the new week we had everything that we had asked for. That is the general experience -- government and the bosses are always trying to find ways that they can help out their business pals, and if they can either cow workers or drag their feet to not take more robust measures, they will do that.

There is absolutely a "bark vs. bite" scenario when it comes to enforcement. All the organizing work we had done in the year previous to the pandemic is what paid dividends when the pandemic hit. So it ties into the broader consideration of how we empower worker organizations.

Militancy or the ability to organize isn't a light switch, you really have to build up your capacity to be effective, and our Local was very deliberate. We had a brand new executive, and we were very open that grievance-first unionism isn't working, that approach is very individualist-based, and it leaves our membership in the dark. We were very aggressive in having workfloor visits and saying, "The union is only strong if the members are involved." So we said, "Here is an activist training course," and we tried to get at least 10 per cent of the workers from each facility to take the course. Through the course we built up that network of activists who knew how to directly confront management over issues, whether it was safety issues that popped up before the pandemic, bully bosses, or what have you.

So when the pandemic hit, we already had this experience and training and this confidence, which gave us the leverage to go to Canada Post and say, "We have already had these confrontations with you over things of considerably less importance. We are in a pandemic. Here are our demands. This is what we are willing to do." And they knew we were serious about it. It is the work we had done prior to the pandemic that was decisive. Canada Post complied with all our demands. While we cannot say with certainty what would have happened without the measures we proposed, we do know that while we did have individual cases of COVID-19 amongst our members, we have had no spread within the plant or any of the depots.

The pandemic has presented a challenge for us to do better to unlock the potential that is at the heart of the labour movement, For example, the pandemic has really shown the need for paid sick time for all workers, and we need the labour movement to have more strength to force this issue, to be able to mobilize to win these provisions during these very exceptional times. As a former president told me, "Always trust the membership."

(Photos: WF, CUPW)

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