For almost four months, Emma Llanes, a cleaner at the building with six years of service, was forced to purchase her heart medications out-of-pocket, because she didn’t have access to her benefits plan.
For several weeks, Llanes and her colleagues remained uncertain about their jobs, their livelihoods and their future.
This week the workers can finally resume their unionized jobs as the employer backed down from a concessionary and insulting offer.
The employer, Luciano Janitorial Services, is the cleaning company contracted by the Icon condominium on 250 and 270 Wellington St.
When the collective agreement expired this year, Luciano’s new contract proposal removed two of the four paid sick days, heavily slashed benefits and offered a meagre 30 cent wage increase over three years to $14.80 an hour.
According to Service International Employees Union (SEIU) Local 2’s press release, the janitors would have had to contribute $1,000 annually for benefits compared to the $200 in their old contract.
As negotiations broke down and the workers rejected the offer, they were locked out of the building and replaced by scabs.
During the lockout, the workers stayed on the picket line and reached out to the residents, petitioning them and handing out flyers. Periodically, they were joined by community allies to hold demonstrations outside the condo building.
Spadina-Fort York MPP Chris Glover and Mae Nam were among the NDP politicians who came out to support the janitors.
Meanwhile, the board of directors of the Icon condominium as well as the property management company (DEL), stayed silent throughout the affair.
While the decision-makers waited for them to buckle, the workers ardently defended their jobs even as they were forced to seek temporary, part-time work elsewhere.
“One of them was doing some construction work on weekends and he would have to travel to Orangeville four hours, work for four hours and then come back which was another four hour ride,” said Jorge Villa, an organizer with SEIU Local 2.
He said although the workers were able to find stable work over the past few weeks, finding jobs with benefits was the biggest problem.
“Emma [Llanes] really needed her heart medication,” he said. “She did find a part time job but it wasn’t offering benefits.”
Villa said the union increased the strike pay as a special allowance for these janitors due to their low wages.
Ultimately, as the workers refused to back down, the employer caved in.
According to the new agreement, which was ratified last week, the workers retain their benefits plan and paid sick days, while getting a cumulative wage increase of 80 cents over three years.
“We were able to stand up for ourselves against changes that would hurt us. This only worked because we stood together,” said Castaneto Villamor, as quoted in SEIU’s press release.
Busting the union
Luciano Janitorial Services took over the cleaning contract at the Icon condominium building last year. Due to successor rights, the five-member cleaning staff maintained their union membership.
The Liberal government in Ontario had included successor rights for certain industries when it substantially reformed labour laws through Bill 148 in 2017. While the Ford government rolled back most of the reforms, it retained successor rights for workers in building services.
Prior to 2017, lack of successor rights led to the decertification of janitors’ unions in buildings where cleaning services are contracted out. Without those rights, when a new contractor takes over, the union is automatically decertified and has to be formed again – which is not an easy task.
Without the support of a union, compensation packages can be easily reduced – saving money for the contractor and the property manager.
In this case, Villa suspects that the plan was to break the union by sowing discord through an unfair contract. However, the workers held strong and have managed to hold onto their gains for another three years.
And Emma Llanes will continue to access her heart medication.