After eight months of organizing and many setbacks, cleaning staff on four BC campuses have successfully joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Janitors have been trying to organize on several BC campuses since last December. This battle was hard fought by the employer, Best Service Pros, which has the cleaning contract on six BC Campuses. This led to over 50 legal complaints at the British Columbia Labour Relations Board, including an unfair labour practices complaint against Langara College.
Part of the employer’s strategy to prevent its workers from joining a real union was to work with a rat union, the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC). As a rat union, CLAC signs collective agreements that help employers rather than workers. As is typical of CLAC, the employer and CLAC agreed on a ten year collective agreement with poverty wages and minimal benefits, before the workers were hired. After months of organizing and pressure, the BC Labour Board ruled in June that the collective agreement was invalid, and that “the ratification process was unreasonable, and the ratification process cannot be relied upon to reflect the true wishes of the employees.”
By the end of July, the majority of cleaners at Langara, BCIT, UBC – Okanagan, and Vancouver Community college had signed cards to join the SEIU. This led to successful votes at UBC-O and BCIT, with over 90% voting to join the union at UBC-O. The pressure from the janitors, the solidarity from other workers and students on campus, and the exposure of CLAC, led Best Services to accept the majority of cards at Langara and VCC without a vote.
“We were sure it was only a matter of time before we were victorious,” said Nadia Khlafa, a cleaner from UBCO. “We as workers face a lot of exploitation and abuse in the cleaning sector and know that by being part of Justice for Janitors, we finally have a voice and our managers will be held more accountable for the decisions they make.” Now these workers will have a chance to ratify their own collective agreement that includes better wages and benefits, they will have a grievance procedure, and they have the chance to participate in a democratically run union.
Christine Bro is the Lead Organizer for SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign. She explained why this victory is important far beyond these few campuses, “Defeating CLAC sends a message to other cleaning contractors that back room deals with rat unions is not an option.” On the other hand if Best and CLAC had won this fight, it would have sent the message that if employers tough it out they can keep workers from joining a union and keep workers’ wages and benefits down. The Justice for Janitors campaign aims to organize all janitors in BC. As Christine explains, “We have a tough fight ahead of us in this province and many other disingenuous employers we need to confront so we can truly build power and see a sustainable difference for the janitors across BC.”
She continued,“The true heroes in all of this are the janitors and worker leaders who, despite working multiple jobs and enduring an anti-union campaign of intimidation, really stepped up and had to face the bosses head on. The solidarity from students and faculty undoubtedly helped instill more confidence in the workers, knowing others had their back.”
In April delegations were sent to college administrators with petitions with hundreds of signatures calling for an ethical contracting policy that would require contractors on campus to pay a living wage and grant successorship rights to real union collective agreements when the contract is won by a new company. Petition signers also called for polices to remove contractors that break labour laws.
At Langara College the members of the Langara Faculty Association passed motions at their annual general meeting that require the union to push the college administration to accede to those demands. This is a great start, but it will take more than meetings with college administrators to guarantee successorship rights and improve wages on campus. The janitors can lead this fight, but it will require solidarity from the workers and students on campus to win.
This piece was first published by socialist.ca