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OPSEU Local 540 members ratify new collective agreement with Homes First

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They’ve been on strike since February 18. Fighting for the right to reasonable shifts, rather than watching their jobs contracted out to temp agencies.

“They’re making it very evident that their plan is to break up the union,” said Emily Visser, Communications Officer, OPSEU, during a noon hour rally at City Hall.

Even going as far as to hire a company to ensure that the services provided by Homes First Society continued uninterrupted during the strike.

Homes First Society, partially funded by the City of Toronto and United Way Toronto, provides housing and supports to help homeless people stay housed and off the streets of Toronto. 

It owns and/or manages 425 units of housing that provide temporary shelter or permanent accommodation to more than 500 men, women and children.

“It’s becoming clear that not only is the City not willing to fund adequate services, they’re not willing to make these services a priority.”

But wages aren’t the sticking point in this dispute.

“We believe that it’s just primarily bad management,” said Visser. 

“We just don’t think that these people are managing their funding and their workforce effectively. They are presumably hoping to make themselves flexible by using temp agencies.”

Visser claimed that Homes First has spent over $60,000 in the past few months hiring temp agency workers.

“That cannot be an effective management strategy. And they’re not very transparent about what’s going on.”

Since February 18, Visser said management and the union have met at least a dozen times, without success. 

The contract between Local 540 and Homes First expired a year ago.

“It seem more like they’re trying to protect their use of temp agencies and their ability to get rid of union members,” she said.

“It seems like that’s what they really wanted, that we just couldn’t concede.”

In spite of the use of replacement workers, OPSEU Local 540 members are making it as difficult as possible for Homes First to operate in a ‘business as usual’ fashion.

Visser said she’s heard a number of stories from Homes First clients who are concerned about the services that they’re receiving from replacement workers.

“We’ve heard stories of abuse,” she said. “And some of these clients are afraid to report that abuse.”

Most clients have long term needs, Without a continuous relationship with a knowledgable, qualified worker, they suffer the consequences.

On Friday, members of OPSEU Local 540 and their supporters rallied again at City Hall.

They’ve been holding weekly solidarity rallies at City Hall since the strike began on February 18.

“This is an opportunity to bring our message straight to the councillors who should be taking some action on this issue,” said Visser.

“And straight to City Hall where so much of the funding is coming from.”

In their media release, OPSEU said that the City of Toronto provides six million dollars a year to Homes First.

Visser said they’ve received support from some councillors, but nothing strong enough to put an end to the strike.

Visser would like City Council to pressure Homes First to settle the dispute immediately.

“This has gone on long enough,” she said. “Where is the demand for transparency about their management?”

Workers walked around in the Square in front of City Hall on Friday blowing whistles, playing tambourines and wearing signs that read “Stop Union Busting” and “Making A Difference One Person At A Time.”

“This is just yet another example of what’s happening to workers,” said Eddy Almeida, 1st VP/Treasurer, OPSEU.

“And particularly the attack on unionized workers. The folks that are looking for dignity, that provide dignity to homeless people, are looking for a decent contract.”

One of those workers at Friday’s rally was Rosamund Elwin, a university graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Criminology and Sociology, who’s worked with Homes First for many years.

She’s held many positions at Homes First, most recently as a Life Skills Worker at Savards, a 30 bed hostel for women with a long history of homelessness and mental illness.

“My job is to help them work through this,” said Elwin. 

“So I advocate on their behalf, accompany them to appointments, work with the housing worker to find them shelter, help keep them calm when they’re in crisis.”

Make sure they’re fed properly. Or do their laundry.

“We are acting as a surrogate mother for lack of a better word, with no disrespect intended,” said Elwin. 

“It’s emotionally demanding. It’s physically hard. It’s stressful. A lot of us suffer from depression. Or you just don’t want to come to work because it’s another day of the same. And we’re not professionally trained psychologists.”

But dedicated employees making anywhere between $35-40,000 per year.

“And we’re not at the table talking salary,” she said. “We’re just trying to keep what we’ve negotiated over the years.”

Working with a vulnerable population who often don’t have proper clothing, shoes or money. Who haven’t had a decent night’s rest in weeks or months.

For the last twelve years, Lesley Earl has worked at Homes First. Prior to that, she was a tenant at Homes First in the Savards Women’s Shelter.

After she got her two sons back, she was housed at Homes First Vaughan, a 29 unit, three-story apartment building for adults, single parent families and couples.

She gave up her housing at Homes First when they became her employer.

“So I’ve come a long way, actually,” said Earl. “It’s the roof over your head that starts everything off. And then you stabilize your life from there.”

Earl wore a sign that said “Making A Difference One Person At A Time” around her neck.

“That’s about it,” said Earl.  “The difference in my life was made by the workers who put things together.”

UPDATE:

After a four week strike, Local 540 workers negotiated a new collective agreement late Friday and returned to work on Sunday.

The new deal calls for a three-year contract retroactive to March 2012, the date the old contract expired.

“Key concerns have been addressed in the new contract,” said OPSEU in their March 17 press release. 

“There is now language that ensures staff can be given priority consideration for shifts and extra work hours. There is also important new harassment and discrimination language which will protect members from bullying, as well as psychological and sexual harassment in the workplace.”

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