The union cards were signed and were ready to go to the Ontario Labour Relations board. After a quick organizing campaign, the residence fellows at Carleton University felt they were well on their way to becoming a full fledged bargaining unit under the wing of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 4600, when the plug was abruptly pulled on their campaign by the most unlikely people -- CUPE’s National office.
Now, three of the organizers behind the campaign have been forced to resign from their jobs and CUPE denies having ever approved their organizing a unit under 4600’s banner, despite a paper trail that would suggest they were aware of the organizing drive at the highest levels of the union.
Marina Tronin, Miranda Moores, Shelisa Klassen and a fourth residence fellow who has chosen to remain anonymous were considering unionizing because they were unsatisfied with how management at Carleton University, where they are all also students, dealt with a number of incidents in their respective residences.
Residence fellows, who live full time on their assigned floors in student residences in exchange for room and board, are on call throughout the evenings and are often the first point of contact if their students -- who are usually in their first year university -- have an emergency.
"You deal with a lot of mental health issues and crisis situations," explained Tronin. She was concerned that there was no way for the fellows to effectively have their voice heard when it came to matters of occupational health and safety.
The idea of unionizing as a way of ensuring the collective voice of the fellows was heard was brought up after Tronin started discussing her grievances with one of her professors, Daniel Preece, in late September.
Preece is the vice-president of CUPE 4600 unit two, which represents contract employees at Carleton. He, along with the president of 4600, James Meades, and their local staff started exploring a number of options to help the residence fellows, including solidarity support or organizing them under one of Unifor’s new community chapters.
In the end, however, they determined that organizing them as a CUPE 4600 unit would be the best option.
"Because of the presence 4600 has on campus… it seemed a better option to bring the residence into our local as a third unit," said Preece.
And it appeared higher-ups at CUPE were in agreement. Following a November 11 meeting with John Gillies, a CUPE national representative based in Ottawa, a series of emails provided to rabble by Preece show that there was a line of communication opened between CUPE’s organizing department, Preece and the residence fellows.
In an email dated November 20, Gillies wrote that he has been in discussion with organizing, who have concerns about how they will collect dues from the residence fellows. "I suggested that we would negotiate a real wage increase based on the amount that is recorded on their T4 slips… they have not swallowed that idea yet," he wrote, presumably referring to CUPE organizing.
Once CUPE 4600 had found a workable solution to how they would collect dues, Colette Proctor, a CUPE national representative in organizing, emailed Gillies on November 21 to let him know that the residence fellows could proceed. "As long as the local is fine with the possibility of having to cover the cost of this group I think we can organize them," she wrote.
The very same day, cards were handed off to Tronin and her colleagues and they began publicizing their campaign to their fellow workers. Just three days later they had 31 cards signed, representing 50 per cent of the residence fellows at Carleton -- ten per cent over the amount legally required to move on to the next step to join a union, a secret ballot vote, in Ontario.
All four of the organizers indicated in an interview that they were pleased with their success and had no reason to believe their organizing drive would not go ahead as planned until December 1, when they received a three sentence long email from Proctor stating that she had been instructed by CUPE National not to organize the Carleton University residence fellows.
"I've been disappointed with this result for sure," said Klassen. "I was surprised they would give us the cards and go ahead and go public with it if they weren't going to be backing us."
Since then, the four organizers along with Preece and representatives of CUPE 4600 have been struggling to find out why CUPE officials decided not to represent them. Preece and Tronin both contacted CUPE President Paul Moist through his email. Though he never responded to their emails directly, his office did set up a meeting between the parties at Carleton with François Bellemare, Assistant Director of Organizing and Regional Services Department, Proctor and Gillies.
Among the reasons given by Bellemare to Preece, Moores and Tronin was that the team had organized faster than they had expected them to.
“If we didn't organize so fast we would have lost our jobs and where we live and our food,” said Moores. While there is no evidence that management at Carleton violated any labour laws, fear of retaliation from management for running an organizing campaign is something that is shared by workers regardless of their workplace.
As well, according to Moores, Bellemare continually stated that it was inappropriate for them to have given the fellows cards without approval -- though it is still unclear who that approval should have come from.
"If that is process they really need to change that," said Moores. She said they were simply looking for the person who made the decision and an explanation for the protocol behind it.
It is also not at all the understanding CUPE 4600 had of the proceedings.
"Let me be extremely clear on this," said Preece. "The perspective of myself and CUPE 4600 is that what CUPE national did is unacceptable. They gave conditional authorization that from our point of view, and from both the local and well as from the organizers, felt as though it was an approval to organize."
When contacted, Proctor told rabble that the decision was in CUPE National’s hands now. She was declined to comment on who made the decision to stop the residence fellows organizing drive. Bellemare and Gillies did not respond to telephone requests for comment on this story.
Moist declined to comment on this story, but an official statement was provided to rabble by Robert Hickes, Managing Director of Organizing and Regional Services, via email on December 18.
"The Canadian Union of Public Employees did not approve of any organizing project involving students acting as Residence Fellows at Carleton University," he wrote. "CUPE does not believe a trade union is the appropriate vehicle to properly represent the interests of these students. The relationship between these students and the University is not an employer -- employee relationship that can be governed by a collective agreement."
Tronin was in disbelief when asked to respond to CUPE’s official statement, echoing Klassen’s earlier comment -- how did they get CUPE cards in their hands if the organizing drive was not approved? And why was this not the position taken at the meeting she had with Bellemare, Proctor and Gillies?
But above all, she was shocked by CUPE’s position that the residence fellows are not in an employee-employer relationship with Carleton.
"I never in a million years thought that a union would be telling us that we're not workers," she said.
There appears to be no legal reason why residence fellows would not be considered employees.
"There is no exclusion from the Labour Relations Act for workers paid by room and board rather than wages," explained Dr. David Doorey, an associate professor at York University who specializes in labour and employment law, via email. "The definition of employee in the LRA is very broad. For example, it includes taxi drivers who aren't paid a wage at all." He also explained that the Employment Standards Act includes people paid by room and board in its definition of employee.
CUPE officials did not respond to requests to clarify why they believe that residence fellows are not in an employee-employer relationship with Carleton, leaving their reasoning unclear.
What is clear is the impact their decision has had on Tronin, Moores and Klassen. They resigned from their positions to protect themselves from potential reprisals from management, and in doing so are now out of a place to live.
All three are now deciding whether they will pursue compensation from CUPE for lost wages.
"I do feel like because of the mistakes that were made it definitely was a huge factor in our decision to resign," said Klassen.
Regardless of who made the final decision to stop organizing these workers and why, CUPE 4600’s position on the matter is very clear.
"I think in many ways it is completely contrary to the values and positions that CUPE national has espoused," said Meades. "We're supposed to be a union that is committing more resources and support to organizing unorganized workers, there was supposed to be a focus on workers that are in precarious positions and there was supposed to be a focus on young workers."
"In effect, this group of workers -- which covers all of those categories -- basically had CUPE national turn their backs on them." Meades confirmed that CUPE 4600 will back Tronin and her colleagues should they choose to claim lost wages from CUPE.
For Tronin also, her experience over the past three months has shown her one thing about CUPE.
"It just shows how much they do value young workers," she said. "Which is not at all."
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