Win by small union local, in a small town tells a big story

On the picket line in Napanee

STAND TOGETHER AND YOU’LL WIN. That’s the age old union story. And it’s true. It happened again in early April for 20 workers in a women’s shelter in Napanee, Ontario. They won their strike. Got a decent settlement. Good for them. But nothing very important beyond that. Except for the fact that what they did together reminds us where our true strengths and all our collective hopes lie.

The Napanee strike was just regular, everyday working folks taking a stand and refusing to back down. Making a case for themselves. Convincing their friends and neighbours to stand with them. Holding out to get what they thought was fair—no more, no less. Remarkable—but only because employers so often make it otherwise.

Overworked. Understaffed. Underpaid

The 20 workers at the Lennox and Addington Interval House (LAIH) in Napanee, Ontario, a small town about 230 km south of Ottawa, are all members of Unifor Local 414. They work to provide aid and support to women and families escaping domestic violence.

They went on strike in October 2021, after a year of failed attempts to negotiate a new contract. Negotiations broke down when management’s final offer did not include more than 20 previously agreed-upon changes, and failed to address the core issues of staffing levels, union representation, health and safety and return to working language.

“The employer was simply not accountable for how they were spending taxpayer funding,” says Phillips-Janisse, “such as using it to hire a high-priced lawyer to bargain hard with staff."

Employer lies

The union didn’t bargain over wages at the outset because the employer maintained that Interval House was subject to a one per cent cap on annual wage increases. In fact, this turned out to be false.

Phillips-Janisse says that if the employer had addressed their other issues, the union would have tolerated a one per cent limit to any pay increase. “Instead, the employer forced us into a five month strike,” says Phillips-Janisse

Their new contract includes a nine per cent wage increase over four years, and improved hiring language and grievance procedures.

More than that, the strike actually restored and refreshed the solidarity of the local weakened by covid restrictions, says Phillips-Janisse. “There were times on strike when two workers saw one another for the first time in a year!

“The strike—although exhausting— brought our team back together and made us see how much stronger we are collectively.

“I would have much rather done it at a spa,” jokes Phillips-Janisse. “But it’s true that, as a small group of workers, we managed to stay on strike seven days a week for almost five months.

Broad support

Local 414 had plenty of support from their own local that takes in workplaces from Toronto to Ottawa. People from labour councils in Kingston and Quinte, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and the Ontario Nurses’ Association, all also came out to join the Local 414 picket line.

“Strikes are often a huge financial hit,” said Phillips-Janisse. “But other unions and the community made contributions to our strike fund and ensured that no one lost their home and went into debt. It was a huge relief to not be financially starved back to work.”

Over 100 community people joined the 20 striking workers on their picket line on February 12.  The “Support Strike” was organized online by a Facebook group of over over 400 members, to mark 100 days of picketing.

Concerned citizens and supporters from other unions joined the picket line throughout the day, on both sides of Highway 41, to collect donations, hold signs, wave flags, and ring bells. Many passing motorists beeped their horns in solidarity.

“It was a pleasant surprise and quite refreshing to see how many people are involved in the labour movement in such a small community,” said Phillips-Janisse.

“We thought — perhaps naively — that the needs of our clients would incentivize the employer to bring this to a resolution much quicker."

When that didn’t happen the workers had no choice but to standfast, says Phillips-Janisse

It just seemed obvious she said, “How could we claim to empower the women we serve if we weren’t willing to stand up for ourselves? How can I be an advocate and not fight for myself and my coworkers?"

That’s why the story of the Napanee strike—a win by a small union local, in a small town—is important in a very big way.

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