She reached out for support to build a union.
And only CLAC gave a helping hand.
Have you read Part One of this story?
By Zaid Noorsumar
Laura Borden* was determined to form a union at ParaMed’s Oshawa branch. The working conditions had deteriorated after ParaMed, owned by Extendicare, had restructured and expanded its government-funded home care business.
In the first half of this story, Borden discussed these changes at ParaMed, and how the poor wages, inadequate travel compensation and lack of a pension that were among reasons why she was going to fight back.
Now she was committed to building a union. Borden reached out to multiple unions including Unifor and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents over 10,000 workers in the sector.
Finding a union ally
None of these unions were very responsive, she says. However, Borden found an ally in Kevin Gates, the organizer for the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC).
“He explained CLAC’s history and what it stands for and what he would try to do for us,” Borden says. “And he also advised us that not everybody is happy with every union. And if we had any questions before we decided on his union, he advised us to read up on his union and to investigate his union.”
CLAC helped pay for the costs of organizing by booking meeting rooms at hotels to picking up tabs at more informal venues such as restaurants and Tim Horton’s. But the biggest challenge was meeting workers spread out in various parts of Southern Ontario.
Borden says she travelled hundreds of kilometers to organize meetings in Pickering, Bowmanville and Lindsay. But even though the initial meetings went well, maintaining the momentum was hard work.
In order to file for union certification, at least 40 per cent of the employees had to sign union cards – a threshold that’s hard to meet without having a membership list or knowing exactly how many workers are employed.
Networking and certification
In this endeavour, Borden found support from Miranda Ferrier, the president of the Ontario Personal Support Workers Association (OPSWA). OPSWA posted messages on its Facebook group to help Borden connect with PSWs who worked for ParaMed.
“It was very hard to reach out to people that never see each other. That was the biggest challenge. The first few meetings we had it good – after that it was very hard to reach out. [We had to do it] by word of mouth.”
But after about a year of organizing through coffee shop meetings, social media networking, and “many, many phone calls,” in September 2020 CLAC filed an application for a union certification vote.
The result was overwhelming – over 91 per cent of workers voted to form a union in an online vote. According to CLAC, about 600 PSWs are part of the bargaining unit. The number who voted was just over 300.
“Our vote was unbelievable,” says Borden delightfully. “We got 91 per cent support. What does that say [about the working conditions]?”
The CLAC controversy
CLAC is not like traditional unions – in fact it has been banished from the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and is often derided for being a “company union.”
“Workers deserve better than to be in a company union looking to collaborate with employers at the expense of workers’ basic rights, wages, benefits, working conditions and health and safety,” reads a Canadian Labour Congress fact sheet.
CLAC’s model of unionism is based in the European Christian labour tradition, says Steven Tufts, associate professor at York University, who co-authored a research paper on the union.
CLAC has an ideology of respecting hierarchy, making it deferential to power, he says.
However, Tufts says that the Canadian labour movement’s characterization of CLAC as a company union that signs bad contracts is one interpretation of the way CLAC operates, but doesn’t explain why the union’s approach can appeal to workers.
“The other interpretation is that they actually go in with a very specific line of reasoning and argument based on that Christian labor tradition and based on their ideology of labour cooperation versus confrontation,” he says.
This cooperative ideology makes CLAC opposed to strikes (it has struck for a cumulative one hour in its entire history), and also makes it fundamentally different to the Canadian labour movement’s origins in disruptive strikes and protests.
But Tufts points out that this cooperative model can particularly resonate with workers in the construction and health care settings. In these sectors, where CLAC has traditionally done well, there is value in meeting timelines and not disrupting patient care or construction deadlines.
Honey, vinegar and hot potatoes
Borden isn’t fussed about such debates.
“You catch more bees with honey than you do with vinegar,” she says, adding that she knows workers from another company that are quite happy with CLAC’s representation.
Besides, she says, if the traditional unions are so good, where were they when she reached out to them? She says the workers had earlier had meetings with Unifor before being “dropped like a hot potato.”
“The other unions didn’t answer my call,” she says. “Unifor said that we were too much for them to deal with. And if [the other unions] were really concerned, they would have reached out to us themselves.”
Unifor did not respond to a request for comment.
In terms of concrete material benefits, Tufts says that traditional unions that are much larger than CLAC have access to more resources, and tend to bring their workers up to a minimum standard they have negotiated with employers in the sector.
But he says that CLAC’s quality of representation in this particular case will only reveal itself in time.
Borden says that the union is as good as the workers that form it, and that she and her colleagues are going to assert their rights at the bargaining table. They won’t back down from their seeking fair compensation, she says.
Gates, CLAC’s organizer, declined a phone interview request, and chose to answer questions via email.
“One of our key priorities will be the need for better wages. Attracting and retaining qualified, professional staff who can earn a viable living is a challenge for all workplaces that rely on PSWs,” he wrote. “The persistent low pay for front line workers will inform bargaining as well as CLAC’s government relations activities.”
OPSWA, CLAC and the for-profits
Borden says that the workers did not face any opposition from the employer throughout their year-long drive, which is unusual.
The support from OPSWA to organize with CLAC raises questions, since OPSWA has a partnership with Extendicare, the parent company of ParaMed.
Extendicare was also a “gold sponsor” of OPSWA’s 2019 annual conference and was set to maintain that honour for the association’s 2020 conference, which has been postponed due to COVID-19.
OPSWA and Extendicare have had a relationship extending as far back as 2013. Miranda Ferrier, the OPSWA president, also has good relations with the anti-union Home Care Association of Ontario, which mainly represents for-profit home care companies, including ParaMed.
OPSWA also has endorsements from CLAC and three Progressive Conservative MPPs on its website. On questions of private ownership in the healthcare system, all of these organizations hold similar beliefs.
The Ontario PC Party has always favoured privatization, in ideology and practice. OPSWA, through its sponsorships and affiliations, has shown no opposition to it.
In fact, OPSWA supported the Ford government’s passage of Bill 175, legislation that removes oversight from home care and could potentially lead to more for-profit services. The legislation does not address working conditions, and will potentially make them worse.
OPSWA did not respond to our request for comment.
Cheques and challenges
Responding to Rankandfile.ca’s questions about whether CLAC believes that for-profit corporations have a role to play in health care, Gates wrote, “Absolutely. Both public and private organizations, and by extension their hardworking employees, play a necessary role in providing Canadians with the high-quality care they and their loved ones need.”
This is in stark contrast to the approach of traditional unions, which have long advocated for a not-for-profit health care system.
CLAC’s acceptance of for-profit home care operators clashes with the record of these organizations placing profits ahead of high-quality care. In both home care and nursing homes, the for-profit associations use political donations and lobbying connections to maintain favourable conditions for high profits despite inadequate funding.
Unlike traditional unions that despise the Progressive Conservatives for their anti-worker policies, CLAC has also made donations to them (as well as to the Liberals).
What does this mean in the context of this newly formed union in Oshawa? Laura Borden’s hard work has paid off and now her co-workers have an organization to address the conditions at ParaMed through collective bargaining. Whether or not CLAC proves capable of addressing these problems remains to be seen.
*Names changed for privacy and protection