Despite the modest demands of the employees of Many Rivers Counselling and Support Services, the union says that management is refusing to budge.
About a dozen staff members have been picketing since Nov. 2, fighting for better wages and greater autonomy at work. The employees and their union have expressed serious concerns about their working conditions and the behaviour of management.
Many Rivers is a non-profit that provides free services across Yukon with offices in Whitehorse, Watson Lake, Dawson City and Haines Junction. About 98 percent of the organization’s funding comes from the Yukon government.
Although 18 employees began the strike across the four locations, the staff has since dwindled to 12 people – eight counsellors and four administrators.
On Jan. 7, the union presented a comprehensive offer to settle through a federally-appointed conciliator, but has since been awaiting a response from management, which is reportedly “working on it.”
The workers have been without a collective agreement since March of 2017, for which the union firmly blames the employer.
“Every time we went to the bargaining table, we would have proposals ready and we would have counters ready, and the employer would have nothing,” says Steve Geick, president of Yukon Employees Union (YEU).
“So we’d sit there for eight hours, waiting for them to miraculously come up with either a proposal or get back to us on something.”
Among the main sticking points are employees’ demands for a 1.5 percent annual pay increase, flexible working hours and per diem for offsite work expenses.
Aside from the marginal pay increase, the counsellors are seeking flexibility to come in early and stay late if required. Counsellor Larissa Korns emphasizes that this wouldn’t have a monetary impact on the employer.
“We want half an hour of flexibility on either side so that maybe we can come in at 8:30am and be ready for our client at 9am,” she says. “Or if the client needs extra time at the end of the day we are not feeling pressured to get them out of the door at 5pm, but we can take a little bit of extra time to give them the care [they need].”
Brandon Murdoch, counsellor and president of the local, says that management staff themselves come in and go as they please, and take hour-long lunches while the counsellors are only permitted half an hour for meals.
When the counsellors asked for the option of a prolonged lunch break during bargaining, they were told that could only be allowed at a pre-specified time. But Murdoch says that as counsellors they need to remain flexible for their clients.
“If you have a client who needs to book you for an appointment during your lunch hour, you are going to book them during your lunch hour, and have lunch whenever you can,” she says.
“So really it’s about power and it’s about micro-managing us and not giving us the allowances that they (themselves) get.”
The employees are particularly infuriated at what they say are blatant double standards. They note that while the difference between their wage increase demands and the management’s offer amounts to about $5,000 per year cumulatively, the board’s annual retreats alone far exceeds that cost.
In October, the board and members of the management flew out to Vancouver for their three-day meeting at the pricey Coast Coal Harbour Hotel. According to the union, in previous years the board and management took trips to Victoria and Seattle. Meanwhile, annual retreats for staff are held locally.
Many Rivers’ financial reports do not indicate the cost of these getaways, which are likely lumped in under “Education and training for staff and volunteers.” Based on its CRA filing for 2017, this expense amounted to $100,595.
Influencing the board
Frustrated by the bargaining process, some of the employees decided to join the society and attend the AGM in June.
“At the bargaining table we kept getting told that they didn’t have enough money, so we wanted to go to the meeting to find out then, ‘Where is the money going?’” Brandon said.
But the meeting was cancelled at the last minute. The union believes this was because the balance of power would have shifted towards the workers, as only a small number of people attend the AGM.
Over the next few months, the union responded by mobilizing support among its network, encouraging about 20 people to join the society in order to elect a “decent board” – and overthrow one that they believe is in cahoots with management.
But in contravention of its own by-laws, the board rejected the membership applications on the grounds that the aspiring members were affiliated with the union.
The Yukon government is investigating Many Rivers for that particular move alongside other alleged regulatory violations. The organization has not filed its annual report and financial statements, which were due on July 31.
The society is also under investigation for not notifying the public about its rescheduled annual meeting on Nov. 23. According to YEU, invitations were handed out selectively to certain members.
Tensions on the picket line
While temperatures of late have hovered around -35 C, the picketing workers have had to contend with more than just the brutal Whitehorse winter. Less than half an hour before the strike began, one of the employees found out she was being fired due to her program being defunded by the government.
Many Rivers sent her the copy of the government’s letter about its decision. However, the government’s letter mentions that the organization had been informed about the impending decision as early as June.
The withholding of this information for several months has outraged the staff. Murdoch says that she interpreted the move as an intimidating tactic by the employer.
But that hasn’t been the only problem at the picket line. The workers say that Larry Kwiat, first VP, has been particularly confrontational.
“He was one of the board members who was consistently crossing the picket line, and he’d swear at us, or tell us to get out of his way [and being belligerent],” Murdoch says. “And then one day he decided he’d flip us the bird.”
Former Premier Dennis Fentie of the Yukon Party also took umbrage to the protesters, and allegedly assaulted the union’s vice president (his former justice minister Marian Horne is on Many Rivers’s board). There have been other notable incidents of assaults and harassment against the striking workers.
Given that Many Rivers provides services for free, the strike is impacting the most marginalized members of the communities it operates in – a predicament captured well in a Yukon News article.
“This whole process, it really negatively impacts the clients,” Korns says. “And the employer has been silent this entire time, which to me is so disrespectful.”
In the absence of a response by management and the board – requests from not only RankandfFle.ca, but the CBC and other outlets have gone unanswered – clients have been wondering out loud why the strike has gone on so long.
When tagged in a Facebook post by a client demanding answers, board president Marina Bailey lashed out against the union, calling YEU president Steve Geick an “unethical little man” and referring to another union member as an “ugly little woman.”
The union says that the public response has been overwhelmingly positive. Aside from the support on social media, a community member has been organizing a weekly rally on Fridays to support the staff with about 50 people showing up at the last one.
Whether the growing chorus of voices in support of the workers results in a resolution to the dispute remains to be seen.