By Lee Gilchrist
Facing a major strike vote on Saturday April 30, eleven cleaning companies offered 2,500 Toronto cleaners a huge wage settlement on Friday April 29. The Saturday strike vote by SEIU Local 2 members turned into a ratification vote as hundreds of cleaners endorsed the new three-year deal with a 16.6 percent wage increase, including 6.4 percent in the first year.
The union reports these are the largest wage increases for cleaners in the union’s history. Renzo Garcia, a cleaner with J&A Cleaning Solution and member of the negotiating committee, said, “It’s a great victory and well deserved,” adding: “Never be afraid to raise your voice against injustice and greed.”
In addition to the wage increase, cleaners won improvements to the dental and pension plans, the latter first established in 2019. There is also stronger language protecting union jobs against subcontracting, and improved “wage protection” language to award cleaners special bonuses if minimum wage increases outpace scheduled pay increases.
The settlement raises the bar for 1,500 other Toronto cleaners in Local 2 who will soon be bargaining site-specific agreements.
The deal will also be a major factor in Ottawa where nearly 3,000 Local 2 cleaners are negotiating a city-wide multi-employer contract. Meanwhile, the union is building up its strength in Vancouver.
Working conditions in decline
Most cleaners across Canada have worked straight through the pandemic providing essential labour to keeping private and public institutions safe and clean. But like many industries, working conditions have deteriorated during the pandemic.
“Not only did we not get any pandemic pay, our workloads also increased as deeper cleaning was required,” says Mark Dayao, a cleaner at Humber College in Toronto.
A 2020 survey of union and non-union cleaners conducted by SEIU Local 2 and the community organization ACORN, found that 72 percent of non-union cleaners and 55 percent of union cleaners had seen their workloads increased, while upwards of 2 in 3 cleaning companies refused to bring in new staff.
The survey also found only 14 percent of non-union cleaners had paid sick days, compared to 69 percent of union cleaners. Access to health benefits was only 32 percent of non-union cleaners, compared to 70 percent of union cleaners.
The Toronto settlement reflects the mood among cleaners who have been through hell and received little or no reward from employers. Only union organization is redistributing wealth to the cleaners.
Meanwhile, profitable cleaning companies have collected generous government subsidies through the pandemic. The mis-named Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (it is a payroll subsidy) is the main culprit.
A notorious example of pandemic profiteering in the cleaning industry is GDI, the Montreal-based multinational. GDI recorded a seven-fold growth in profits in 2020. It ballooned from $6.8 million to $48 million. The company collected $38.8 million in CEWS “wage” subsidies at the same time. How?
The CEWS is awarded based on monthly revenue declines, not profits. In 2020, GDI posted a $3.2 million revenue decline. Its reward was $38.8 million in CEWS subsidies.
After 2020, GDI maintained high profits in 2021, pulling in $43.4 million. GDI increased revenues in 2021, but because CEWS is awarded based on monthly revenue declines, it was still able to collect the $13.1 million in CEWS.
Cleaning up the capital
In Ottawa, where the federal government is the largest property owner, open public bidding for cleaning contracts has led to a large number of cleaning companies living off federal government contracts.
The cleaning industry is notorious for subcontracting. The name of the game is simple for commercial and institutional property owners and managers: keep wages and equipment costs down, and profits up. This often means keeping the unions out. Union-busting battles are common.
Local 2 members in Ottawa will seek to follow the pattern established in Toronto. The city-wide Ottawa agreement already won a dental plan in 2016, three years after Toronto cleaners, and the Ottawa pension program came online this past April 2022.
Organizing in British Columbia
While many eyes are understandably looking south of the border to Starbucks and Amazon for inspiration around union drives, SEIU Local 2 has been organizing cleaners at a furious pace in Vancouver and surrounding cities.
In December 2021 alone, cleaners scored back-to-back union victories with Local 2 at Vancouver International Airport and Metrotown, BC’s largest shopping centre. Organizing successes have spread through office buildings, shopping centres, and university campuses.
Some of Local 2’s new collective agreements in BC have already made breakthroughs on health benefits with employer-paid premiums, more vacation and improved wages.
While negotiations were ongoing in Toronto, Local 2 has also won an important victory in Vancouver against union-busting. In March 2021, three union cleaners at the Sevenoaks Shopping Centre were not re-hired when the cleaning contract flipped from one company, Dexterra, to Everclean. Everclean defied recent changes to BC’s successorship laws.
In February 2022, the BC Labour Board ruled in favour of the workers who got their jobs back. Crystal Moorman, one of the cleaners says, “We won our case thanks to the power we have by joining a union as I could not have done this on my own.”
With new legislation coming soon to bring in “single-step” union certification (aka: automatic card-check), it is fair to anticipate more cleaners getting organized in Vancouver and the surrounding area.
Back in Toronto, Gloria Pozo, a cleaner for 16 years and member of the union’s negotiating committee sends a message, “We need to show the companies that we are prepared to fight united to protect all our families.”