Toronto labour dispute highlights need for accountability in the non-profit sector

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Photo: Dario Esguerra

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A struggle that began a year and a half ago in Toronto's Jane and Finch neighbourhood has finally reached a bittersweet resolution.

In the spring of 2014, members of the Palisades Media Arts Academy (PMAA), a music and media program for youth in the neighbourhood, came to their studio to find the locks changed and a sign on the door informing them that their beloved program had been terminated.

When these young people petitioned the San Romanoway Revitalization Association (SRRA), the non-profit organization in charge of the program, for more information, they were met with silence.

However, they soon discovered that the loss of their program was intertwined with another struggle at SRRA. Three workers, including the two who led the Palisades Media Arts Academy, had lost their jobs after working to unionize the Association's employees under CUPE 4772.

The workers took their case to the Ontario Labour Relations Board, and after a long series of hearings, a verdict was reached: SRRA, Stephnie Payne (Executive Director), Kevin Green (Chair of the Board of Directors) were indeed guilty of anti-union activities in contravention of Labour Relations Act sections 70, 72, and 76.

"I knew from the first day when Payne saw we'd signed union cards that something was wrong. She asked me to find out who was behind the certification drive; she told me that she wanted to restructure the organization and get those people fired" said Ruben Esguerra, a Toronto-based musician and former PMAA instructor. "In court she denied that she'd had these conversations, but I had emails and text messages to prove that the administration was lying."

When asked about the SRRA's motives for their anti-union animus, CUPE lawyer David Steele responded that this situation is common. "Though they profess ideals of progressivism, a lot of non-profits can be as nasty employers as any others. This one was particularly opposed to unionization; some individuals in positions of power wielded it to keep the union out."

According to Farid Partovi, who is President of CUPE 4772, "This particular executive director and board chair are the most aggressive anti-union managers I've seen. Many managers in the non-profit sector believe they don't need unions. But there's major job insecurity in this field, wages are low, and we believe that they deserve to be organized and not be at the mercy of their employers." 

On December 4, 2015, members of CUPE 4772 and allies of the closed PMAA program gathered to celebrate the case's conclusion, which mandates that San Romanoway recognize the union and formulate a collective agreement.

"Workers have the right to organize themselves, and we hope the board of SRRA will recognize that. We are hoping that everyone will see the benefit of a collective agreement and we will break this culture of fear," says Partovi.

However, the mood of the celebration was bittersweet. The workers dismissed in 2014 will not be reinstated, and the PMAA program will not be reopened. A young musician named Sun (artistic name "The Real Sun") who lives at Jane and Finch and launched her career through PMAA, expressed disappointment at the current situation.

"This is a victory in the sense that we've been able to prove in a court of law that the organization has been found guilty of obstructing the union. But it's only a partial victory. There's not the same space for the youth to make music that we had before; the same people are in positions of power. It's a little frustrating because I know more resources that could be available to youth, but they are not."

Sun adds that PMAA participants still do not know what happened to all of the funds that the organization received from the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF), which initially granted SRRA $345,000 to sustain the program for three years.

According to Ann Ariyadasa, the OTF's communications officer, SRRA returned $12,303 to the organization when the program was shut down and filed the required reports.

"The project had accomplished its mandate and requirements culminating with the launch of the participants' CD in November 2013, which was a huge success. The grant was about to close anyway when the grantee informed us that the project has reached its maturity. It is not unusual for a grantee to give back unspent OTF funding to the Foundation once the grant is complete," Ariyadasa says.

But this conclusion is not satisfactory for Esguerra, who was in the process of seeking additional funding from other sources when the program was shut down, and the youth, who feel that there is a need for more artistic opportunities in the Jane and Finch community. "The PMAA program was very critical to the development of my artistic career; my entire second album was created and recorded through it," says Sun.

"I have the utmost respect for the people who ran it and the staff. At this stage I think we need to push for more community arts-based programs that can be accessible the way PMAA was. The way the youth organized to fight for the program shows it had impact. It is a problem that these programs get discontinued; if people want to help us, they could get more programs into the community by helping to find space and funding for them to run."

David Steele echoes Sun's sentiment. "Though bittersweet, this is is a victory in terms of community support at Jane and Finch. We can only get as much as the law will allow, not the 100 per cent just decision; we can't force the individuals who have broken the law to do the right thing. But, this case really underlines the importance of having the community behind any challenge like this. I am trying to emphasize this with the people involved. The struggle needs to continue."

For Esguerra, the experience of undergoing the hearings has been very educational. "It has made me aware of how the social service sector works in terms of funding and the corruption that is possible. However, it has made me see how a community can come together to fight for its resources. A community often stigmatized and associated with negative stereotypes like crime and illegal drugs has so many good things happening, so many people doing really important things in the community."

According to Farid Partovi, this struggle is part of a much wider issue than the concerns of one organization dealing with a labour-management conflict. "The whole neoliberalization of the economy means that so many public services are being offered in the non-profit sector with lower pay, lower benefits and no job security," he says. "This is part of a broader political agenda toward privatization of public services and more tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. It's a political issue involving all levels of government. It's not just about SRRA -- it's a bigger fight for social justice, workers' rights and community resources."

Jeannine M. Pitas is a freelance writer and a PhD candidate at University of Toronto's Centre for Comparative Literature.

Photo: Dario Esguerra

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