By Haseena Manek
“The best thing about this whole process has been an awakening among the workers,” said Local 518 President Elizabeth Wickwire in an email to Rank and File. “It is from small moments like this that I think the broader movement for workers’ rights is built. So, when people talk about fighting ‘Doug Ford’ or other larger foes, I always think it begins here, in supporting the workers, even at an agency as small (but fierce) as ours.”
On February 19, workers at Newcomer Women’s Services Toronto (NEW) held an info-picket during the organization’s Annual General Meeting.
Local 518 members and allies gathered outside of the organization’s office on the Danforth during the afternoon meeting. Members received support from a number of labour organizations at the action, as well as their local MPP, Peter Tabuns (NDP). Coordinator of the Fight for $15 and Fairness Pam Frache, President of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council John Cartwright and OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas all came to show support.
RankandFile.ca spoke with Bargaining Chair for the NEW unit Elizabeth Wickwire. Wickwire is an English language instructor with NEW. She was involved in the unionization process and became Steward for NEW workers and has since become President of Local 518.
“We did reach out to allies and supporters and they showed up, so that was really heartening I think for a lot of our members because it’s so easy to feel alone in this long drawn out process that we’ve been going through.” After unionizing with OPSEU December of 2017, NEW workers have been in bargaining since last May.
This is the second action of the year, members also rallied outside of a board meeting in January on what Wickwire said felt like the “coldest night of the year”.
She said supporters were out then too, “I think that was the first time they saw we were serious and united and we had friends who were coming out to support us.”
The 24-member women-only staff including full-time, part time and casual workers all of which came on board with the union. NEW offers a variety of services to newcomer women including language classes and employment services.
The main issue in bargaining is wages. The union is seeking a 2.2% wage increase over two years (they started with 2.4%). “My fellow instructor has been with the organization for 10 years and in that time has seen a mere $1.02 increase in her wage,” says Wickwire, who has worked with NEW for five years.
Talks came to a standstill in December when Local 518 rejected employer’s final offer being 1.4% over two years (but without retroactivity, so only applying to 2019 wages). The union then held a strike vote which resulted in 100% of members voting in favour of a strike.
According to Wickwire, many workers at NEW are new to union organizing. She herself had never been involved in a union before. “I think it’s difficult, unionizing and talking strike and stuff in a non-profit where you’re doing front line work every day. It almost, it can make the workers feel guilty because we love our clients so much and we love our jobs so much and we don’t want to compromise that. In turn it makes it difficult to stand up for ourselves sometimes, because we are so worried about preserving the work and preserving the organization and keeping the clients satisfied and that does’t seem fair, to not be recognized and rewarded financially for the work we do every day. So the fact that we had a 100% strike vote and that we’re willing to strike means that this is an important issue for us.”
According to Wickwire, management at NEW had said they were willing to return to bargaining “but do not see the point because their offer hasn’t changed.” However, a few days before the info picket the union received a conciliation date of March 15th from the employer.
Wickwire says she thinks their coming back with a date ahead of the info-picket action indicates they might be willing to move on the wage increase. “I’m hoping, I shouldn’t be so sure,” she says.
NEW management have cited funding restrictions as an obstacle to the wage increase workers. NEW receives funding from all levels of government (federal for the English classes and childminding, provincial for employment services and municipal for other programs). Wickwire says she is aware of organizations that have similar funding models and have higher paid employees. She sees the issue as a lack of will from management to find the necessary funding for workers to get fair wages.
“The board has a specific mandate to do fundraising and if you look at the annual reports for the last few years there’s been no fundraising. Or minimal, like a hundred dollars here and there.”
As NEW is such a small organization, the difference in dollars of the union’s ask and the employer’s offer amounts to $5588.06 for all employees for a year.
“It’s their job to figure out a way to give their workers decent working conditions. It’s their job. So yes it might be hard, it might be challenging and maybe even a small amount like five thousand dollars is hard to find and guarantee for the years to come, we understand that, but they need to find a way to make it happen. They need to push up, rather than pushing down.”
NEW staff don’t have a pension, have very limited benefits and most staff don’t have anything beyond basic Employment Standards Act vacation provisions.
In speaking to RankandFile.ca, Wickwire emphasized that members are committed to the continuing to serve their clients and do not want a labour disruption.
“Of course nobody wants a strike,” she says. “There’s no pretending anybody wants a strike. We don’t want a strike, the employer doesn’t want a strike, nobody wants a strike. But with our 100% strike vote we said we are willing to take that step if that’s what we need to do to get a fair wage increase.”
She also explains that apart from herself, a white, Canadian-born native English speaker, all other members are women of colour from immigrant communities and that as an organization that aims to support and empower newcomer women in Toronto, NEW must consider staff a part of that mandate.
“I think if the board and the employer wants to also empower women and empower newcomer women they have a great opportunity to do that by giving their own staff, who are largely non-Canadian, non-native English speaking and non-white women a fair wage increase. They have an opportunity to achieve their goals by giving their staff more control over their financial situation.”
She continues: “I think if they can see it like that, that helping us is actually achieving their mandate because we in turn are doing the day to day work of empowering women in the organization then it seems like it should be viewed as an opportunity, our wage increase, not something thats a detriment to the organization.”