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On March 15, employees at the Choices for Youth Lilly Centre went on strike. The Lilly—a 14-unit supportive housing unit for youth aged 16-24, which offers 24-hour support—is one of several operations run by Choices, a non-profit charity that provides a range of community-based social support services.
The nine workers at the Lilly comprise only a portion of Choices’ staff, which consists of almost 200 full- and part-time employees. But they are the first of several units in the process of unionizing with the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE). The strike reveals a great deal about the changing nature of work in the social services field, and about the consequences of government downloading social services onto the non-profit sector.
Precarious but Meaningful Work
I met Julia Parsons as she came off the picket line, face red and chapped from the icy wind whipping around outside. As she tramped through a downtown hotel looking for a cup of coffee, her bright orange survival suit brought stares from sleek suit-and-tied guests tapping away on their laptops. The suit was a gift from her father to keep her warm on the picket line. He used to work for the Coast Guard and wore it out on the boats.
“The second day of the strike he brought homemade muffins from my mom, and this suit,” she explained. “He said ‘Put it on!’ and I’ve had it on ever since.”
The 25-year old Parsons fits the profile of the non-profit sector to a tee. Three quarters of non-profit employees are women; the majority under 45. It’s a growing sector, one that provides 41,000 jobs in NL. But in contrast to provinces like British Columbia and Alberta—which saw growth rates of nearly 20 percent in non-profit jobs between 2010-2019—job growth has stagnated at barely 1 percent in this province during the same period. Yet demand for services has surged. Researchers reported a 49 percent growth in food insecurity in this province between 2012-2018, for example. When you throw in the additional stresses of a pandemic, it’s no surprise researchers report a steady growth in unionization efforts by non-profit workers.
In this province, even breaking into the field is challenging. Often the only work for new hires is relief work involving sporadic call-in shifts. Because the work is unpredictable, new employees need to get on relief lists at multiple agencies in order to cobble together enough work to survive.
Laura Cadigan, one of the striking employees at the Lilly, began working there in 2019. At the time, she was juggling shift work at four different agencies in order to make enough money to survive.
“You’ve got to juggle a few jobs to do relief. It’s very stressful. You can’t keep your schedules straight, so it’s really hard to keep organized,” she said. “It’s hard when you don’t have a schedule, and don’t have job security. In the community, in this industry, most people work multiple jobs.”
Griffin Sheldon joined the team at the Lilly last year, after doing his Social Work student placement there. His time there convinced him he wanted to return after graduation. But even though he had a social work degree, Choices put him on the call-in list. He wound up juggling relief jobs at three different spots in order to make ends meet.
“It’s difficult. Especially when you’ve just graduated with a four year degree and I’m seeing a lot of my classmates get full, permanent positions right out of school… going into a relief position was a little disheartening at first.”
If workers are lucky, the more shift work they take, the more they’re offered, and the greater the likelihood they may eventually be offered permanent hours at one of the agencies that employs them. One of the problems faced by relief workers at non-unionized agencies is there’s no formalized seniority list to guarantee who gets offered more shifts and eventually full-time hours.
Cadigan was eventually able to get enough shifts at Choices—split between the Lilly and the Shelter—that she was able to reduce the shifts she worked at other agencies. Then in August she got offered full-time work at the Lilly.
Cadigan works overnight shifts, but loves the work she does. It involves planning and running programming, which varies from day to day. Some days she helps residents with life skills like grocery shopping or cooking meals; other times she organizes recreational events.
“You don’t realize how much is taught to you by caregivers,” she explained. “If you don’t have that support at home you don’t really learn those skills. So life skills [are] a big part of our program. It could be cooking, it could be cleaning, it could be social skills. All that kind of stuff, we support people with.”
Parsons has been working at Choices for almost five years. She got into shelter work because she loved the fast-paced and challenging nature of the job. And it felt meaningful.
“You’re meeting that real immediate need at the shelter,” she said. Working at the Lilly was a different pace, but just as important.
“With the Lilly you have to build relationships and have more challenging conversations around behaviours and stuff like that,” she said. “It’s just as important. But sometimes it’s a little slower seeing the progress and actually getting to know them. Whereas when you work at the Shelter it’s an immediate need that you know you’re meeting.”
“At the Lilly, you’re there for the ups and the downs of people, good days and bad days,” said Cadigan. “You’re not only there when people are happy and having a good time, you’re there when people are down too. You really get a very close relationship with people because of that.”
“For me honestly the best parts are just the regular chats that you have, people catching you up on their day. Crack a few jokes, make people smile, that’s the stuff that matters.”
The Long Road to Unionization
The Lilly staff clearly love the work they do. So why did they feel the need to unionize?
The unionization process at Choices started in 2018. After discussing the need for a union, employees at the Lilly as well as the Choices Shelter approached NAPE.
Management at Choices got wind of the union drive, and sent a strong message to employees urging them not to unionize. An email from executive director Sheldon Pollett went out to all employees in November 2018.
“The decision to sign a union card should not be taken lightly,” it read. “For our part, we strongly prefer for our organization to remain non-union. We do not think a union is necessary. We prefer to deal with you directly in matters relating to your employment and do not believe a union is needed to act as a “go between” for management and our front-line staff…”
When employees went ahead and submitted an application to the Labour Board in 2019, Choices immediately challenged it. Their legal challenge delayed the process over a year. They argued relief workers shouldn’t be considered staff, and succeeded in getting them removed from the proposed bargaining units, thereby cutting the units in half.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, to form a union, 70 percent of workers in a workplace need to vote (and of that 70 percent, a majority must vote yes—these thresholds are among the highest in Canada). After the relief workers were removed from the Shelter bargaining unit, the number of votes cast failed to reach that 70 percent threshold, and so the application failed.
Workers at the Lilly however succeeded, and were certified as a union.
The other employees redoubled their efforts. Non-relief workers at the Shelter repeated the process, and submitted another application which has been sitting at the provincial labour board since June 2021.
The excluded relief workers at both sites also repeated the process, submitting their own application for a separate union. Their application has also been sitting at the labour board since June 2021.
Meanwhile, workers at the Lilly—now certified as a union local under NAPE—began negotiating with Choices management for a first collective agreement. Negotiations stretched on for about a year, unsuccessfully. A conciliator was brought in, to no avail. So on March 15, workers at the Lilly went on strike.
Bargaining with Choices
Bargaining between union and management stretched on for a year. According to NAPE President Jerry Earle, it proved to be one of the most difficult rounds of bargaining he’s seen in his career.
“I have never seen anything compare to [Choices] in their anti-worker, anti-union approach at the bargaining table,” he said.
“Nobody wanted to go on strike but we really didn’t have any other options because this had already been dragged out a year,” said Cadigan. “It felt like this was all we could do to have some kind of power or autonomy in our working conditions. This was the only thing we had left.”
Staff at the Lilly say they haven’t received a pay raise in twelve years—not even cost of living increases. NAPE says that when inflation and cost of living increases are factored in, this amounts to a 22.5 percent pay cut over the past twelve years.
There were other issues on the table as well. Staff wanted sexual harassment policies, and anti-discrimination provisions. And there were safety concerns.
“Here in Newfoundland there’s a lot of places that are single staffed at night. I’ve been in a lot of really questionable situations, alone in places where you’re unfamiliar,” said Cadigan. “So that’s one of the big things that was really important for us as a staff, for safety. You never want to be alone because that leaves you in a really vulnerable place.”
“Consistency in management practices,” said Parsons. “They’ve sort of been a little all over the place throughout the organization. There’s different standards for different people.”
“A lot of it had to do with Choices looking at [frontline workers] as a bottom-rung group within the organization,” said Sheldon. “[This is] us putting our foot down and saying look, the way you’re treating us is not good enough, and if you’re not going to come back to the table and give us something better then we’re going to have to take it into our own hands.”
With the union applications in, Choices management shifted tactics, and finally gave everyone in the organization a raise—except for the employees who unionized. Management said the unionized workers would have to deal with pay concerns at the bargaining table.
“There are employees of the Lilly who have worked for Choices for over twenty years,” said Cadigan. “They are very dedicated to this organization and they’ve given their whole careers to this organization. And people have felt like we’ve had some degree of punishment for unionizing.”
The Independent approached Choices with a request for an interview and an opportunity to respond to comments from the union. Choices management responded with an emailed statement:
“Choices for Youth is not conducting interviews at this time. We continue to communicate with the bargaining unit to get back to the table. Our focus is on continuing discussions with NAPE until we reach an agreement, while ensuring continued care for young people supported by Choices for Youth.”
Where Does the Money Go?
Although Choices promotes fundraising and donations, more than $6 million of its $8 million budget comes from different levels of government—with the provincial government providing the lion’s share.
“This is public money,” said Cadigan. “This is your taxpayer money going into this place. That’s what people need to realize. Yes some of it is private donation, but a lot of it is taxpayer money. Taxpayers deserve accountability in how their money is being spent. [Choices] receive a lot of public funds, but they don’t answer to the public.”
One of the concerns raised by the union is the amount of money spent on administration at Choices. NAPE says most Choices employees earn less than $40,000 a year, yet Choices has at least five management employees in or near the six-digit salary range, with four more in the $40,000-$79,000 range. And according to Charity Intelligence, a think-tank that analyses the performance of charities and non-profits, only 29 cents of every dollar donated to Choices “goes to the cause”—a rating that CI describes as outside its range of reasonable overhead spending.
Meanwhile, Choices continues to grow. In the first three months of 2022 alone, with a strike looming, Choices advertised for a dozen new positions, including two more management positions in the $70,000-$80,000 range. Employees say Choices is growing too fast: eager to launch and publicize new programs while existing core services remain underfunded.
Choices workers are also frustrated with a lack of upward mobility in the organization. New management positions tend to go to new hires from outside the organization, they say, while front-line workers remain stuck in lower-paying jobs.
Non-Profits and Unions
When governments fund non-profits that essentially provide public services, it’s no surprise front-line workers seek to unionize, says Nora Loreto, a writer and labour journalist who authored the 2013 book From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement.
“When we see public services downloaded to the not-for-profit sector like this it puts tremendous stress on organizations that often don’t have the resources necessary to be able to do the work that they do,” Loreto explained. “It’s very convenient because then governments can just say ‘Well our hands are washed of this, this is nothing to do with us, this is them.’ Even though often in these situations they’re providing services that we would consider to be critical and part of the social safety net of our provinces.”
“So you underfund the service, you outsource it, and then you have these small agencies that are all supposed to manage on their own. And they’re supposed to have human resource experience, and management experience, that they may or may not have. So it’s not surprising that workers seek to unionize, because often these places are difficult to work at.”
“The demand for services is increasing a lot,” said Cadigan. “Especially within the shelter system there’s a much higher demand right now than there ever has been. This issue is very invisible to the greater community. People don’t know the scale of housing insecurity in Newfoundland, unless they work in this field.”
“For those of us who work in service provision, it’s frustrating because the greater community maybe looks at the young people as troubled youth who are experiencing housing insecurity because of their own individual factors. When the reality is it’s a systemic issue. The band-aid fixes of just temporary accommodation doesn’t work. Having stable accommodation at the Lilly can be really foundational for people.”
When Non-Profits Get Mean
Dr. Ruth Milkman is a leading American sociologist of work and Labor Studies Chair at CUNY School of Labor Studies. While she’s not familiar with the specifics of the Choices strike, the overall dynamic doesn’t surprise her either.
“I’ve heard about many cases where non-profit employers resist unionization efforts despite their otherwise progressive commitments,” Milkman explained. “It may be that they are influenced by the ubiquitous anti-unionism of private-sector employers. In general it’s a power issue; it’s rare for power to be ceded without a struggle, as the cliche goes, and non-profit managements are loath to share power with a union.”
Talking to workers on the picket line, there’s a sense of disbelief that things actually came to a strike. Workers can’t understand why management would be hostile to worker-led proposals around things like sexual harassment, or bullying in the workplace.
But Loreto isn’t surprised by these dynamics.
“Oftentimes we think not-for-profits are left wing by the very nature of the work that they do,” she explained. “And that’s not true. There’s [often] a widespread lack of human resources and management skills, and because of the lack of it, we either reach to the private sector for experts from there, or people make it up as they go. And both approaches are disastrous… If you’re in a sector where you care about the work then you have to find a different way to run these operations.”
“We have to step back and say, what are the core problems here? And if the core problem is government funding, then why is management taking it out on its workers? Management and the workers should be coming together to figure out how to operate, while at the same time turning the screws to government to make sure the funding can come so that people can be paid properly.”
The Lilly workers hope their fight might inspire other non-profit workers in the city to improve their conditions as well.
“We hope that at the end of this, maybe we can start a push for other not-for-profits to start unionizing,” said Sheldon. “Or if not unionizing, at least fighting for better treatment and better pay.”
What About the Youth?
While the strike goes on, residents at the Lilly are without the 24-hour supports and programming they usually have. But in addition, residents have been relocated out of their homes and into a hotel for the time being.
This move sparked an angry response from the union.
According to Earle, the union informed Choices ahead of the strike that they would not picket at the Lilly, as they wanted to minimize the impact of the strike on residents. That decision came directly from the Lilly employees, he said—they told the union they would not picket in such a way as to cause trouble for the youth they work with. But Choices management removed the residents anyway. The striking workers are concerned about the impact this will have on residents’ lives.
“It baffles me to see a community organization that’s focused on housing first, take residents out of their home,” said Sheldon.
“It’s their home,” emphasized Cadigan. “[Choices] claims to use a housing first philosophy for everything, but for me housing first does not mean removing people from their houses.”
Jessica Wall is a former resident of the Lilly. She lived there from 2013-2018. She’s also concerned about the impact relocation will have on current residents.
“The fight that the Lilly staff are fighting is unfortunately a fight that our community-sector frontline workers know all too well,” she said. “As a former resident of The Lilly and former client of the outreach program at Choices I am… deeply saddened to see the people who were once my caregivers be treated with such blatant disrespect and disregard for what they deserve. I know from lived experience just how powerful and meaningful they have been in my life and the lives of some of my friends, and their work is worth protecting and fighting for.”
“The role that these staff members have in the lives of the young people plays a pivotal role in some of the true healing that is necessary for a young person to thrive,” she continued. “The Lilly more often than not becomes the first safe place where a young person finds a sense of security, a sense of emotional and physical safety and provides them with a sense of home.”
Holding the Line
Meanwhile, nearly two weeks in, the strike continues.
Parsons never expected to be on strike, but says the experience has actually strengthened her relationship with co-workers, and her conviction that things need to change.
“Sometimes when you think something’s wrong in the workplace, you think it’s just you,” she said. “But with the union, once we started talking, you realize everyone is feeling the same way. It’s not just you! It made me feel like I wasn’t crazy for thinking that way.”
Sheldon had a similar realization.
“I think that as soon as we started to talk about going on strike, it really gave me a clearer perspective about how long my co-workers have put up with some of the wrongdoings at Choices,” he said. “I think it’s brought us a lot closer together as a team, because it feels like we’re all fighting together for something that’s bigger than ourselves. A lot of the talk that’s going around not-for-profits in St. John’s is that a lot of them experience the same treatment that we do. I’m a registered social worker. I look around at my peers and I look around at other people who are social workers, and the pay, the mistreatment that we get, is just so much lower than what’s expected.”
‘It’s definitely not for the faint of heart,” said Cadigan. “But the morale is amazing and the support from everyone in the community has been amazing and really reassuring for us. We’re all really close and this whole experience has just brought us really closer.”
“When you show up every day and you have people to your left and your right who put a smile on no matter what, and who are always there with those uplifting supportive messages even when times are tough, it makes it a lot easier to keep going.”
Follow Rhea on Twitter.
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