When management at the Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites in downtown Calgary decided to fire Aaron Doncaster, they probably thought they were ending their employees’ efforts to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401. After pursuing charges at the Alberta Labour Relations Board, Doncaster not only got his job back, but for the first time in thirty years, the Labour Board ordered that workers facing illegal employer actions can have their union automatically.
Union organizers in Alberta know the “chilling effect” all too well. Workers want fairness and some kind of say over their working conditions. They start organizing and talk of joining a union. They contact a union and begin the legal process. Management hears of it, and they might fire or scrutinize a known union supporter. With their livelihoods on the line, workers get scared, and efforts to unionize are abandoned. Some quit, some stay. Things don’t change. The boss wins.
That, it seems, was then.
Risk is a barrier to a right
In the summer of 2017, workers began talking about starting a union at the Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites, a newer hotel in the heart of downtown Calgary. Doncaster, a worker rights activist and organizer, contacted UFCW Local 401 for formal support in forming a union.
“Hilton workers were complaining of mistreatment and favouritism, improper pay practices on overtime and tip calculations, health and safety concerns, and an overall lack of dignity and respect from management,” explains Joe Irving, an organizer with UFCW Local 401.
They had every reason to decide that a union might help. Forming a union is a human right. But because rights aren’t easily enforceable, joining a union is also an immense risk.
“We get a lot of organizing calls from workers in every industry,” Irving adds. “401 is a big Local in a big union. We have resources, and we’re known in Alberta for our organizing and for not shying away from difficult situations, in organizing, contract campaigns, and enforcement of our collective agreements.”
Risks remain. A vast majority of organizing calls from workers don’t result in a campaign, much less a successful one. The labour relations system has not been responsive to workers, and it has not been respectful of the risks they take to unionize.
At least, it seems, until now.
Unionization as a remedy for employer wrong-doing
In 2017, the Alberta NDP Government enacted the Fair and Family-Friendly Workplace Act, which among many things, restored powers to the Alberta Labour Relations Board that allowed for remedial certification. In other words, employers who break the law and interfere with employees’ rights to form a union run the risk of unionization as a remedy.
Between 1981 and 1988, the Alberta Labour Relations Board had these powers, the purpose of which is to stop employers from breaking the law in the first place. The powers were a deterrent. There are similar provisions in other Canadian jurisdictions, like Ontario and British Columbia.
“We understand the Alberta Act was about getting somewhere close to a balance, getting closer to where other provinces are at,” says UFCW Local 401 President, Douglas O’Halloran. “When an employer threatens the livelihood of workers for freely exercising their human rights, which includes the right to join a union, they are really making that decision for workers. Employers should never decide whether workers have a union or not.”
Don’t quit, organize
Notwithstanding northern Alberta work camps, the hotel industry in Alberta has proven itself resistant to union organizing drives. When Hilton management fired Doncaster, they likely sought to send a message to him and his coworkers. They also likely sought to stop the spread of an idea throughout the industry: don’t quit a bad job; stay, organize, and make it better.
Doncaster described the victory as “a new day for working Albertans.” When he learned of the certification, he exclaimed, “thank you to all who supported us through this ordeal. This is the happiest day of my life!”
In this case, the “chilling effect” of the employer’s actions didn’t kill the drive. It was what pushed the Labour Board to order that the union be certified. The risk seems to have been transferred, slightly but significantly, back towards the employer.
“This is a major victory for workers at the Hilton and for all Alberta workers who want to join a union,” says O’Halloran. “Empowered by better legislation, the Labour Board has sent a clear message to employers who would commit unfair labour practices by seeking to threaten or intimidate workers for exercising their human rights: if you fire a worker, you get the union.”
UFCW Local 401 will be working with the Hilton workers to discuss proposals and plans for achieving a first collective agreement.
Certification in hand, it’s now time to build the union.