Justice for Janitors takes on Ottawa's cleaning subcontractors

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Janitors in the nation's capital are fighting a tough battle against a government sub-contractor that they say has refused to work with their union.

Representatives from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local 2 allege that Evripos, which provides sub-contracted janitorial services for government offices throughout Ottawa, tried to move all but two unionized workers at 700 Montreal Road, which currently houses the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, to other buildings managed by the Evripos after the company was awarded the cleaning contract by the building's management, SNC Lavalin, April 1 2014.

In a complaint filed to the Ontario Labour Relations board, SEIU said that Evripos tried to disperse the unionized workers in an effort to keep the union out of the workplace.

Caroline Richard, legal counsel to Evripos, told rabble.ca in an email that the company denies all SEIU's allegations and has filed their own response to the complaint.

The union has appealed to both SNC Lavalin executives and Diane Finley, the Minister of Public Works and Government Services -- the government ministry in charge of awarding government contracts -- to call for Evripos to respect the rights of the unionized workers at 700 Montreal Road. They have yet to have a response from either. Representatives from SNC Lavalin and Finley's office have not responded to rabble's request for comment.

"I don't think the Canadian public would be supportive of the idea that we're driving workers into poverty in publicly owned buildings," said Tom Galivan, the Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU local 2. His union organizes custodial staff across North America as part of the Justice for Janitors program.

In many office buildings in Canada, sub-contracted companies place bids to get contracts for providing cleaning services. Because of this, SEIU organizes on a citywide basis in order to stop other, non-unionized companies from sweeping in with lower prices.

Currently, most custodial staff in Ottawa make about $11 an hour under a city-wide agreement with several government sub-contractors. It will rise another 25 cents with the increase to the minimum wage in June. However, that rate still leaves their wages below the poverty line.

Galivan explained that in Ottawa, 15 custodial service sub-contractors have agreed to work on a city wide bargaining campaign in 2015 that would see cleaning staff get higher wages and benefits at a number of different workplaces -- except Evripos.

"[Evripos] has decided to work very actively to undermine that process as we move to the bargaining table in 2015," alleged Galivan.

At Tunney's Pasture, another government complex where Evripos provides services, SEIU alleges workers were stonewalled during collective bargaining when Evripos executives told workers they would only agree to a collective agreement that had a five-year wage freeze and no benefits.

Richard explained that Evripos pays workers at Tunney's Pasture $12.50 an hour, a $1.50 more than the current citywide agreement. She said that Evripos proposed to maintain that rate until the citywide rates exceeded $12.50 so the company could stay competitive and that a five-year term was consistent with previous agreements.

She added that Evripos position with respect to benefits is consistent with the citywide agreement, which also does not provide for benefits. Evripos also denied that they have any intention of undercutting other subcontractors who work with the union.

Anielka Zelaya has worked as a janitor at Tunney's for three years, cleaning washrooms and emptying trash. It was a means of supporting her two young daughters. But making just over minimum wage wasn't cutting it for her.

"I [said] to myself, 'Hey, we need to get some benefits because we have been working hard,'" she said. "Sometimes we get sick and we don't have a day for us to go the doctor." As a member of the bargaining team, she was present at the negotiations and was deeply frustrated by the actions of Evripos executives.

Zelaya has a simple message for her employers: "Have a little bit of heart for the cleaners."

SEIU next plans to present Finley with a series of petitions from unionized custodial staff in the city demanding she take action May 27.


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