Massey Workers Fight for Their Rights

Now that the G20 has left town, let’s get down to talking about the reality of maternal health in the City of Toronto. Workers at the Massey Centre for Women are entering their 11th week on a picket line. Throughout this strike, the 66 members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 Canada have proved themselves to be courageous, dedicated and clear-minded. They are also passionate advocates for the young women that they work with.

Walking the picket line at the Massey Centre for Women.

The Massey Centre for Women is located in the south-east corner of Toronto. It’s been located in the neighbourhood since 1901. The Centre offers a residency program with both pre and post-natal support for young women aged 11-21. There is space at the Massey Centre for up to 76 young moms and their babies. Workers offer physical and mental health programs and play a strong advocacy role in managing other contacts or interactions with the state. They also run a daycare centre for up to 48 kids and run the neighbourhood Early Years drop-in centre.

Front-Line Community Support

What that means in substance is that Massey Centre workers establish and provide a safe and caring place for some of Toronto’s youngest and most vulnerable mothers. Across the board, both maternal and infant health outcomes are higher for those that receive support from workers at the Centre.

Massey workers have been members of SEIU Local 1 Canada since 1992. They’ve never been on a picket line before. The strike at the Massey Centre is a consequence of three related causes. First, the new management at the Centre has never worked with a union before. Second, is the legacy of the mid-90s assault on the public sector by federal and provincial governments. Finally, the Dalton McGuinty Liberals’ refusal to agree to an easy solution to this dispute.

Complex problems require creative solutions. There are a few reasons that all of us knew from the beginning that we would need to go beyond management at the Centre to get this solved. The primary reason was the nature of that management.

The 16-year veteran that had been running the Massey Centre retired almost two years ago. The incoming ‘CEO’ of the Centre had nothing on her resumé indicating even basic familiarity with trade unions – never mind maintaining a mature bargaining relationship. It soon became apparent that there was a wholesale lack of political sophistication and professionalism. A couple of sessions with a Ministry of Labour conciliator led nowhere in a hurry.

Additionally, money was being spent in questionable ways at the Centre and several new ‘managers’ or favourites were hired outside of the bargaining unit. There was also a high degree of turnover on the volunteer board of directors. This all added up to a rotten recipe for labour relations. Workers felt like their Centre had been taken away from them and there was only a very small and fragile terrain upon which the bargaining relationship could be preserved. Management is now trying to impose the McGuinty wage freeze for non-union public sector workers onto Massey Centre staff. This despite the fact that the collective agreement is more than a year expired.

Not that any of us would envy what this new CEO had walked into. The legacy of the deep cuts to social services since the 1990s was like an open wound at Massey.

The current model of ‘project based’ funding means that base funding for services has continued to erode while some kind of grant can bring in a bunch of new leather couches or fund a specific job or two for a time-limited period. The consequences of this model are deeply ironic and often contradictory.

Strike Deadline

In an all-out effort to negotiate a new collective agreement before the midnight strike deadline on April 19th, SEIU arranged for a very generous offer of pro-bono mediation services from a highly respected mediator. Although we didn’t meet until 5pm, we stayed together until after 1am.

With the skills of this mediator on the case, we were able to learn of a crucial piece of information that night. We learned that Massey Centre management had paid workers pay equity wage adjustment money as they were obligated to back in 2003, but this money had never been ‘back-filled’ into the Centre from the government as it should have been. The amount of money that the provincial government should have paid into the Centre to fund the pay equity adjustments was almost exactly equal to the difference between the two positions. The mediator suggested this as a potential route around a strike at midnight. We collectively wrote up a memorandum of settlement on that basis. We were in unfamiliar territory with this one.

We drafted a settlement that was contingent on the provincial government coming up with the pay equity money for Massey Centre within a couple of days. In other words, the union and management agreed to hold off on a strike or lock-out for a couple of days in order to give the government the opportunity to prevent disruption of services for the young moms and the families that use the daycare.

The primary funding ministry for the Centre is the Ministry of Child & Youth Services (MCYS). The Minister for MCYS is MPP Laurel Broten, Etobicoke-Lakeshore. We successfully got the innovative proposal onto Broten’s desk within the deadline but were unsuccessful in getting a funding commitment for the Centre. What looked to all parties like a face-saving resolution, fell flat.

This meant the strike was on. Workers walked out together en masse at the deadline on April 21st and after more than eleven weeks, none have crossed the picket line. The disruption to services was immediate and dramatic. The daycare effectively shut down. The pre and post-natal programs slowly ground almost to a halt.

We are worried about our clients. Massey Centre management would like everyone to believe that our clients are still receiving the same excellent care they received prior to the strike. How can this be possible, when the staff who provide the excellent care haven’t worked since April 21, 2010? For years our managers have told us that Massey Centre has the best staff, and that they are the heart and soul of the agency. Now, we watch SCABS cross our picket line at the request of the very same managers. We watch some managers turn their backs on us and question our dignity and morals because we do not treat the SCABS with respect, while the SCABS themselves laugh in our faces.

While our managers pat themselves on the backs for what they call a job well done, our clients continue to get the support from the staff they have grown to trust, only now they come outside to the picket line to get it.

We provide counseling for clients who have been assaulted by their partners. We show how to administer medication to their children. We provide links to other community supports and we let them vent – because they need to.

Children who attend our daycare still see the same friendly faces every day. We do this because our clients are the reason we work at Massey Centre.

The silver lining in all of this is we have become a stronger team. We are sisters and we stand together. This will make us an even better team when we return to work providing the excellent care Massey Centre is known for.

Melissa Furlano
Striking Massey Centre Worker

The local MPP, Peter Tabuns of the NDP, has played an extremely supportive role throughout the strike. Peter has intervened during question period at the legislature four separate times. Every time he has taken the opportunity to demand an intervention to support the young moms and workers at Massey, Broten has responded by stating that she can’t get involved in a strike but is looking forward to sitting down with Massey Centre management after the strike. No commitment or support for the vulnerable moms and Massey Centre workers has been offered.

On one of the occasions that Peter raised a question about Massey Centre in the legislature, we organized a group of teen moms, their babies, parents that were using the daycare and workers to sit in on question period. The same refrain was offered again from Broten, but this time right to the faces of the workers, mums and their babies.

The strikers have tried to reach out to the voluntary board of directors at Massey before and during the strike. Historically, there were open and cordial relationships with some board members. Now, communication between the union and board members has been systematically shut-down and centralized through the CEO’s office.

The strike has been able to gather a small amount of media attention, but not nearly what it deserves. Our strike should also have had much more attention and support from other unions and workers. Importantly, a few affiliates joined a rally May 10th at the Centre. This included activists from CEP, The Society of Energy Professionals, OPSEU and the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. Toronto & York Region Labour Council president John Cartwright has been supportive and has come by the picket line a few times. The visits from Toronto activist and singer Faith Nolan have also raised workers spirits significantly.

More recently, a group of Massey Centre workers attempted to make the clear link between the G20 maternal health agenda and the lack of support for young moms and workers in the city of Toronto. The organizers of the Friday, June 25th Toronto Community Rally during the G20 meetings were welcoming and open to the idea having one of the Massey workers speak at the rally after the march. The cops ‘taking care’ of summit security had different ideas. About a dozen workers from Massey Centre remained committed to joining the afternoon march despite the blatant intimidation and the confiscation of their flag poles.

Half-way through the march the cops decided to snatch an activist or two out of the group. Massey workers were shoved up against a wall and trapped temporarily without an escape route. This was enough police brutality for their day. Disappointed, they left the march before its end and met back at the Massey Centre.

The sister that had prepared a short speech never got the chance to give it. Hopefully, she will have the opportunity to give that speech at the upcoming rally and BBQ at the Massey Centre on July 6th. •

Euan Gibb is based in São Paulo, Brazil. He works with the global union Public Services International (PSI).