Workers who fought for unionization, fired by community organization

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Rapper Nathan Baya and former PMAA instructor Omar Sanchez on the music video se

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For kids living in the high-rise apartments of the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in Toronto like Blackcreek, effective and accessible community programs can make a world of difference. But internal struggles over union representation have threatened one program that once allowed youth into a recording studio. 

The Palisades Media Arts Academy (PMAA), run by the non-profit organization San Romanoway Revitalization Association (SRRA), provided this in the form of a creative space for local youth from its opening in September 2011 to its premature closure in April 2014. 

Two years on, rapper and former PMAA participant Nathan Baya -- now 18 with one album under his belt -- returned to his old stomping ground to mark another year for his community without the facility.

PMAA, which had a recording studio, computers and lounge, closed its doors after SRRA staff unionized following concerns around contract transparency and benefit entitlements.

CUPE, which successfully led the certification of SRRA in September 2013, laid a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board over the organization's treatment of three of its employees -- Rosie Pera, Omar Sanchez and Ruben Esguerra. 

The trio had their employment with SRRA terminated following the implementation of the staff bargaining unit.

Pera was involved with SRRA's Elia Middle School after school program, and Sanchez and Esguerra were the PMAA's two staff members.

The board decision, overseen by vice-chair Derek Rogers, was released in December and found SRAA and its executive director Stephnie Payne guilty of anti-union behaviour. 

Rogers' decision outlined a series of actions carried out by Payne, or implemented on her instructions -- including the formation of a petition alleging CUPE had forged voter cards during the certification drive -- aimed at destroying the presence of a union at the association. 

The decision also highlighted accountability problems regarding grant funding of PMAA.

"The responding party through Payne and [SRRA chairman Kevin] Green made improper inquires of staff and inappropriate references to the potential restructuring of SRRA as a consequence of the certification drive," Rogers stated in his decision.

"It [the petition] was outstandingly anti-union and it was shown to have been effective as it was signed by two employees that had signed membership cards."

Baya's album Reasons to Grind, which dropped last year, features a track titled "PMAA."

Dedicated to the previous facility space, the song touches on "anti-union animus" exhibited over the closure of PMAA.

Yesterday, the young artist was joined by friends and supporters -- including CUPE members and Sanchez -- outside the old PMAA location to film the music video for his track. 

"We're going to release it on April 30," Baya said.

"We have to do something in remembrance of that day because that was the same day they closed down the program [in 2014] and shut us out."

PMAA was more than just a music program for participants, Baya said.

"Everyday, it was a place to go after school. They fed us, gave us a chance in the studio and they educated us about the music industry. 

"Before the studio, I used to record spoken word poetry on my Beats headphones…and my iPhone.

"A friend told us about the space and then we came in here and that's when we found out about the professional recording studio."

Baya, whose PMAA track also features on the Black Lives Matter Toronto mixedtape, said being involved with the program and supporting Sanchez and Esguerra during the labour board process taught him more about his local community and the importance of unions for workers.

He is due to attend the CUPE Ontario Division Conference Youth Camp next month, where attendants will be treated to a performance of Bring Back PMAA and have the chance to work with Baya.

Sanchez, who like his former colleagues Pera and Esguerra were never reinstated at SRRA, reflected on the struggle he'd had with his former employer.

"We basically [formed] a union to…get a proper contract, to get benefits and to keep running [PMAA].

"There were a lot of fishy things [going on] and then me and Ruben decided to do the union.

"We didn't know it was going to go like this. We thought we'd get certified and things would change." 

While he acknowledged SRRA provided invaluable services to members of the local community, Sanchez was adamant better organizational structures implementing greater transparency was needed for people to benefit fully from the funding and resources SRRA administered.

Last Thursday, SRRA's current staff of 13 -- down from 20 three years ago -- voted to decertify the union in its workplace.


Listen to Nathan Baya's Bring Back PMAA track here

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly named Baya's track "Bring PMAA Back" not "PMAA."

Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

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