Labour disputes are rarely polite, dignified affairs and they’re almost never quiet.
When they involve vulnerable people like seniors, the disabled or children, it’s often hard for the public to sympathize with picketers, no matter how sympathetic their plight. The strike by workers represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees against Supports for Artspace Independent Living (SAIL Inc) at the Artspace Housing Co-op downtown—about to enter its second week—is a case in point.
Nestled between Jasper Avenue and the river valley, Artspace opened in 1990 as an innovative, integrated housing option for people with physical disabilities. Of the 66 suites and 22 townhouses at Artspace, 29 of them have been adapted, enabling people who would otherwise end up in a long-term care facility to maintain their independence.
Some of the residents require the assistance of home-care aides, while others manage on their own. Ian Young, 51, falls into the latter category as he suffers from the effects of a number of strokes and encephalitis. Young considers himself progressive, is a former member of a union himself and volunteers for a number of organizations including the labour-friendly Friends of Medicare. But, despite a natural inclination to support the workers in a labour dispute, he’s fed up.
“This is our home. We’re innocent people here,” he says. “There’s children here and I’m very worried about my neighbours, many of whom are vulnerable adults who can’t move or speak.” Young says he understands the frustrations of AUPE, which has been attempting to negotiate a first collective agreement for about 30 SAIL home-care aides for over a year, but he would like to see unions alter their tactics for situations like this.
Last June, Alberta Health Services abruptly notified the union that it was terminating the SAIL contract on July 31 and providing layoff notices for the same date. It was the government’s plan to replace three Edmonton non-profit service-delivery organizations, including SAIL, with a private, for-profit contractor.
“We worked with the residents, helped them with press releases and the like,” says Kevin Davediuk, the union’s chief negotiator. “Just as our workers are there for these residents every single day, our union was there for SAIL last year when it came to advocating for their continued existence.”
Since then, Davediuk says AUPE has patiently waited for SAIL to renegotiate its contract with AHS, which it has now done. The government is now providing funding of $28 per hour of care. He alleges that SAIL is paying the workers around 20 percent less than that, with no health benefits, sick time or retirement plan. He says that the union is prepared to work with SAIL to lobby AHS for more money if this is an issue of inadequate government funding.
“But we don’t know that because the employer has been less than forthcoming with their financials,” he says.
SAIL’s president Roxanne Ulanicki acknowledges the union’s offer of advocacy but says the union’s actions on the picket line rule them out as potential allies with her organization.
Ulanicki says the union is failing to paint the whole picture when it comes to the funding SAIL receives from AHS. While the contract talks about $28 per hour of care, the organization must also cover all operating expenses from that amount, not just wages.
“We have rent, insurance and administration costs on top of the wages we pay to the home-care aides,” she explains. “That all comes out of that $28.
“We are still at the table with AHS to deal with some of the challenges we face,” she adds, saying it’s something they’ll do without the union’s help.
“The union is outside picketing, shouting and saying all sorts of derogatory things about our organization—things which make all of our residents feel uncomfortable and, for some, unsafe. These are not the sort of tactics we would want to see from anyone calling themselves our allies,” Ulanicki says.
In the meantime, the residents are feeling like hostages. Young says there’s a girl down the hall who is afraid to go to school because of all the swearing and the presence of video cameras everywhere. He describes being woken up by picketers shouting at six o’clock every morning and worries about the disruption the community will face in coming days if the strike continues.
“There were two little girls who used to come and visit my dog every day,” Young says, explaining they’ve been scared off by the picket line. For him, the foul language and shouting on the picket line is reminiscent of a lifetime of bullying—something a lot of people with disabilities endure. “I’ve been bullied all my life,” he says. “I don’t like bullies.”
AUPE vice president Karen Weiers was found on the picket line. “We want conversation not confrontation,” she says about the possibility of changing tactics. “Our members want nothing more than to get back to work.”
Until that happens, the picket lines will remain.