Workers accuse Friendship Centre of closing to escape union drive

Artwork on wall of Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Halifax.

     Alas, we
     Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
     Could not ourselves be kind.

     ~Bertolt Brecht poem “To Posterity”

THE BITTER IRONY CUTS DEEP for Brent Cosgrove and his 19 work mates at the the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre (MNFC) in Halifax. All 20 of them were thrown out of work on December 13. The workers are convinced it was because they had applied to join a union.

There was no warning. No notice. The workers were summoned to an unscheduled morning meeting and told their jobs were gone.

Snap terminations

“We got an email from one of the big wigs at the Friendship Centre,” says Cosgrove. “She said that there is a mandatory staff meeting on Monday, December 13 at 10am.”

The meeting was so important, even workers who had just finished a late shift the night before had to be there. The reason quickly became clear: the bosses announced that they would close the shelter on December 31.

The staff contracts set to expire at the end of the month would not be renewed. The 40-bed shelter will close for approximately two months for what the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre calls a “restructuring” required by funding and lease issues.

Catherine Hubbard, another case worker at the shelter, says there were no inklings in advance that the shelter would shut down. “We had no idea.” As for the shelter residents themselves, they were never officially told. “I don’t know if they know,” she adds.

Retaliation for union protection

Hubbard, Cosgrove and the other case workers suspect the non-renewal of their employment contracts is related to recent unionization efforts.

“There was a lot happening with regards to safety of the case managers at the shelter, and we always knew [a union] would be a thing,” says Cosgrove. “It reached a level that we all decided that enough is enough, there’s things that we need in order to support the people that are staying at the shelter.”

“Conversations have been on and off for a couple of weeks, but we really only got our feet on the ground a week ago, December 7,” Hubbard says.

“Frankly I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” adds Cosgrove. “I think that when they found out we were unionizing, that’s when they decided to put their foot down.”

But the Friendship Centre technically isn’t firing anyone, contracts are just not being renewed at their set end date.

Possible unfair labour practice

“It’s very complicated and the answer isn’t always straightforward,” says Ron Pizzo, a lawyer and partner at the Halifax law firm Pink Larkin. “But typically speaking, if an employer is showing anti-union animus, and they’re only doing this because of the union and you can prove a bunch of things, then you could file an unfair labour practice.”

A person with knowledge of the union drive says the Services Employees International Union (SEIU) filed for official union recognition before the morning meeting, but only gave notice to MNFC management after the meeting. Workers are due to vote later this week on the application for union recognition.

An internal executive memo circulated on Dec 13 says “we are not actually achieving what we set out to achieve. The objective was to ensure we are offering a safe and secure place for urban Indigenous people.”

No need to shut down

On a recent visit, Pamela Glode Desrochers says staff told her only 15 of the 40 beds were filled by Indigenous people. “We have to make sure that we’re providing what we need for our community,” says the Friendship Centre’s executive director. “Things we have gone without for generations.”

But Hubbard says there’s no reason why the shelter has to close to do that.  “I don’t think we were lacking anything,” she says. “But we could easily do two things at one time.”

“There’s quite a bit that’s up in the air. In my opinion what’s been done, I do not think it just,” says Cosgrove. “And I can tell you that we’re going to be fighting tooth and nail for our clients, for the shelter for our job security—and for our union.”

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