Lockout in small town Saskatchewan

By Denise Leduc

Variety Place workers demonstrating against being locked out. Photo by Denise Leduc.

On May 21, After being at the bargaining table for almost four years, workers at Variety Place in Outlook, Saskatchewan were locked out by their employer. Variety Place is an organization that provides residence and day programs for individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities.

The workers of Variety Place have been without a contract since August 13 2013. Despite funding from the government for 9.4% higher wages for workers, the employer has only offered a 1% increase.

On Thursday May 18 the union served strike notice to inform the employer that going forward the workers would provide limited service. Although there was a strike mandate the workers never had the intention to immediately go on strike and planned to use other strategies such as leafleting and rotating pickets in the hopes that would bring movement on the lengthy bargaining process. The goal of their union, SEIU-West, was to always to ensure Variety Place residents and participants were not disrupted during any potential job action. Workers acknowledge and don’t take lightly the fact that Variety Place is the home of many individuals who are participants.

In fact, management was already moving residents to temporary accommodations before any strike notice was served. This immediately affected 20 participants in 3 group homes as well as five people who take part in the day program offered by Variety Place. Additionally, 48 employees have been affected. These direct care workers currently make between $15.11-$17.49. As part of their job they administer medications, cook and feed, bathe, provide personal care, do laundry and cleaning, and provide recreation and activities to the participants. Compared to equivalent workers on other job sites the workers at Variety Place make about $2.00 less an hour.

Carmela Verwimp who is part of the bargaining committee and a frontline worker at Variety Place says that workers feel that they have not been treated with dignity and respect. She notes that seasonal workers in Outlook are paid more to cut grass and pull weeds than to care for some of the community’s most vulnerable people. There is also frustration that management hasn’t been transparent about their salaries. However, SEIU-West is aware that the employer is funded for salaries of $40,340 per full-time direct care worker, yet full-time employees earn only $31,428.80 – $36,379.20. The union also claims that the employer is also funded for more positions than they actually fill.

Furthermore, management has been running budget surpluses but instead giving workers a fair increase they have put that money into an estimated $350,000 worth of renovations and a brand new vehicle priced at $46,800. Verwimp questions why this vehicle does not accommodate wheelchairs despite half of the participants at Variety Place being in a wheelchair. Workers are also concerned about participants being short-changed with approximately 18% of the food budget for residents not actually being spent on groceries.

On May 31 SEIU-West applied to the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board to end the lockout. SEIU-West President Barbara Cape states, “We do not believe that the notice provided by the employer satisfied the requirements of The Saskatchewan Employment Act. In addition, we believe that unnecessary hardship has come to our members and their residents and participants. We want to address the misleading public information that our members were going on strike. Job action is always a last resort. Our members care about the quality of services they deliver to residents and participants, and a reasonable wage increase would go a long way to addressing the recruitment challenges they face daily. We are looking for a third party to instill some fairness into this situation.”

Verwimp insists the goal of the workers and the union is to get back to the table as soon as possible. She is frustrated by the lockout and concerned about the participants who have been displaced from their home. She is hoping that as the community learns that these workers have actually been locked out and not on strike, support from the community will grow. She encourages people to sign SEIU-West’s petition to voice their support and concern.

SEIU-West’s petition can be signed here.

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