How student caseworkers unionized their summer jobs

In the summer of 2015, summer student caseworkers at Parkdale Community Legal Services joined the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union. Two worker-organizers who were central to the campaign, Jenna Meguid and Parmbir Gill, took time to answer some questions from Jason Edwards for Rankandfile.ca.

Rankandfile.ca: The Ontario Labour Relations Board certified your bargaining unit as “all persons employed by Parkdale Community Legal Services Inc. as summer students enrolled in the Osgoode Hall Law Program in the City of Toronto…” Who does this encompass: how many workers and what kind of work are they doing?

Student caseworkers unionize at Parkdale Community Legal Services. Photo from OPSEU
Student caseworkers unionize at Parkdale Community Legal Services. Photo from OPSEU

Jenna Meguid: Parkdale Community Legal Services (or PLCS) has four divisions, each of which focuses on an area of law: there’s the immigration division, housing rights, worker’s rights, and the division which works on issued related to social assistance, violence, and health. As one of Ontario’s government-funded community legal aid clinics, PCLS serves low-income individuals within the Parkdale area.

Each division is staffed by a lawyer who supervises five student caseworkers. From September to May, students work at the clinic in exchange for academic credit. In the summer, the clinic hires back some of these students as employees. Our new bargaining unit is composed of the 20 summer students hired across the four divisions. An existing OPSEU bargaining unit – whose members were a critical support to us during our own drive – represents all administrative staff and community legal workers.

The summer students perform all front-line legal work. They meet with prospective clients to identify legal issues, perform informal advocacy, draft legal submissions, and they regularly represent clients in front of the Landlord Tenant Board, the Social Benefits Tribunal, and other tribunals and courts. They also perform much of the clinic’s law reform work. They sit on the ODSP Action Coalition, work with the Parkdale Tenants’ Association and the Workers Action Centre, and work with provincial and federal coalitions to combat poverty and precarity in Parkdale.

RF: Briefly explain how the organizing drive unfolded. What were the major difficulties you encountered, and how did you overcome them?

Parmbir Gill: The drive began in May 2015, in the form of conversations about inequities, inefficiencies and problems at work. One idea that emerged from these conversations was to organize a union as a means to improve the situation. This led to a more formal group meeting at which an OPSEU organizer was present to answer dozens of questions about the process, benefits and unique risks of unionization at a workplace like PCLS. The discussions that ensued made the idea generally more attractive and achievable. After the meeting, the summer caseworkers who were present formed an ad-hoc organizing committee, and within a few days we arranged one-on-one or small group meetings with all of our co-workers to gauge their levels of interest and points of concern. These meetings involved perhaps the most riveting aspect of any union drive in a context like ours – card-signing.

After about three weeks, we had enough cards signed to take the next step and file an application to certify. Before proceeding, though, we wanted to shore up our collective resolve, to make it as conscious and as sturdy as it could possibly be in anticipation of the always-fractious encounter with management. To that end, we organized an open meeting of caseworkers where all were invited to ask questions and raise concerns. The outcome of the meeting, which involved over half the proposed bargaining unit thinking aloud together, was a unanimous decision to file the application to certify. What was beautiful about this moment, in my opinion, was that even those who declined to sign a union card, and who expected to vote ‘No’ in the ultimate ballot, voted ‘Yes’ to moving the drive forward. I think this reflects the quality of the organizing drive as a whole – it was conducted in a way that brought even those with reservations about the union on board with the process of its formation. In that respect, we pre-empted the biggest difficulty we could have faced as organizers, that of division and acrimony within the workforce.

JM: Another difficulty that we encountered was a narrative of the “duty” of those in helping professions to plug all of the holes in social service organizations that have emerged out of years, sometimes decades of neoliberal reforms that decimated the social safety net. There is a perception that those working in compassionate industries don’t have the right to the same workplace dignity and protection that unions in private sector, for-profit workplaces fight for. But people relying on the legal aid clinic are not well-served by unwell, over-worked, compassion-fatigued staff.

To address this concern, we paid a lot of attention to the ways that our interests as temporary workers in the legal aid clinic could contribute to social justice organizing in the community. We looked for ways that our demands could provide a platform to cultivate solidarity, rather than reinforce our separation. We committed to each other that our demands would ensure accessible and quality legal advice in Parkdale without restricting access to services.

RF: What is different about this type of bargaining unit, compared to a union local at a more traditional workplace? How did these characteristics influence your drive for support?

JM: PCLS has been a formative part of legal education for students for four decades, and there is a tight-knit community of alumni now working in progressive legal organizations all over the province. So when we came up against some of the more absurd tactics on the part of management (for instance – at one point we were told that we’d not be able to unionize because, despite our EI, CPP contributions, and employment contract, not a single one of us had employment relationship with the clinic), we were easily able to turn to that larger community to ask for their support. This involved partaking in broader principled discussions about unionization, among people who knew and cared about the experience of student workers in the clinic, and who were invested in ensuring that the clinic functioned at its best. This network of supporters was an invaluable resource that we relied on more than once.

Another unique feature of our bargaining unit is the 100% turnover of the membership. The bargaining unit only has members for the four summer months of the year, and it is unlikely that an individual will be hired for two successive summers. This meant that from the very beginning, those involved in the union organizing committed to animating an outreach strategy for subsequent years of student workers, to bridge the gap between summers, and ensure that our hard-won victories are remembered and leveraged for further change.

RF: What types of workplace issues did you hope to improve by forming a union?

PG: There were many issues we hoped to address through unionization. Here I think it’s worth distinguishing between the material and the ideological aspect of unionizing, without either fixing that distinction into a binary or privileging one side over the other. The material aspect encompasses demands for defined hours of work, compensation time, parental and bereavement leave, a robust plan for those with accommodations needs, and grievance and arbitration rights – all of which now appear in our collective agreement. These are important elements of equitable employment, and their absence in our old contracts was part of why the drive got off the ground so early in the summer.

The ideological aspect of unionizing, by contrast, targets those issues that seem more natural, common or inevitable, but in fact stem from existing relations of power and control within the workplace. After all, though it is a not-for-profit corporation – and a remarkable not-for-profit at that – PCLS is still structured like a corporation. The structure in turn generates all sorts of hierarchies and inequities in the day-to-day operation of the clinic. For caseworkers in particular, this has contributed to unaddressed problems of racism and other forms of discrimination, of exclusion from decision-making processes, of inefficiency masquerading as incapacity or excess demand for service, of the devaluation of ideas and proposals to improve work practices, and of isolation, emotional fatigue and despair as symptoms of a deeper alienation.

None of these problems were obvious or self-evident at first glance. In fact, we were only able to identify them as problems thanks to our own political and educational backgrounds, and by talking to PCLS alumni who went through it all before us. While nobody viewed unionizing as a panacea, we were convinced that achieving a durable form of worker organization in the shape of a union was a step in the direction of transforming workplace relations, and through them our conditions of work.

RF: In its press release, the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union said that the collective agreement would “change the nature of the clinic for the better”. How does the contract do this? How does it improve on the issues you have identified?

JM: The collective agreement makes massive strides on a number of issues central to the experience of summer workers. For instance, the collective agreement will control the work-hour expectations that workers are under, which was a critical equity issue for us, and for the quality of the work being done by the clinic. The culture of law venerates those whose bodies and social circumstances allow them to stay in the office for the longest hours and avoid outside responsibilities. But this workplace culture excludes people with disabilities or with outside caretaking responsibilities, and it is critical that social justice organizations have staff reflective of the diversity of the communities they serve. Defined hours of work mean that not only the able-bodied and unencumbered may apply. It’s a huge victory.

But just as importantly, this process has disrupted very powerful narratives about our own helplessness as employees. High-hierarchy environments like law schools and firms breed competition, insecurity, and risk-aversion, and when you’re only in a workplace for four or eight months, it is easy to think that the risks of resisting unfair working conditions aren’t worth it. Over time, workplace conditions – and the services offered to clients – deteriorate.

Since our organizing drive and the unanimous ratification of our first collective agreement, students have started to respond by organizing with each other. Now, when confronted with unilateral or unreasonable changes to the academic program or to the workplace, students have both the instinct and the experience to work collectively to resist such changes. It’s amazing.

RF: Having gone through the process of organizing and certifying your bargaining unit, what would you say to other workers—students, young people, the precariously employed, articling students—about the process?

JM: The legal requirements for a union drive are clear, and don’t encourage deliberation, negotiation, or consensus. Cards are signed, a vote is held, legal challenges are raised and lawyers suit up. Those who support a union, those who don’t, and those who are unsure of their position don’t necessarily have an opportunity to be together in the same room to air their concerns and exchange perspectives.

As people of colour, women, and people with disabilities and mental illnesses, we knew the dangers of organizing without engaging with the full diversity present in our workplace. We made the decision that our union drive was going to be responsive to the entire employee contingent, and was going to embrace the diversity within our workplace. As Parmbir mentioned, there was more than one moment where we felt that just meeting the legal requirements was not going to be good enough for us. As a group, demonstrating that we were interested in hearing from and incorporating the concerns of all of our members was critical to our success, and the extremely high levels of support we continue to enjoy in the workplace.

We took the position that there were lots of ways for individuals to contribute to the leadership shown by their coworkers, even if ultimately they were not going to vote in favour of the union. Without presuming that this model is possible in all workplaces, for us, facing dissent with a spirit of curiosity and deliberation, and being clear that reservations and concerns would be welcomed, not treated as a betrayal of some sort, were strategies that allowed us to deepen as well as broaden support for our union drive, and construct more meaningful demands. They were strategies critical to our overall success.

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