Many employers in New Brunswick, including universities, use anti-labour and anti-union techniques as a management strategy. One tactic is “contract flipping” for work such as cleaning services.
When a contract is flipped to a different service provider, the workers have to reapply for their jobs with the new service company. They might lose their job, or if they get the new job, they might need to change their union, or they could be left without a union and collective agreement to protect their rights as workers.
St. Thomas University flipped its contract for custodians in August 2020 to a new company. The custodians had been working for Aramark and were represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE Local 5083), with a collective agreement expiring in June 2021. Some of the custodians originally with Aramark were not re-hired by the new company. All the workers with the new company are now without a union.
The new company is GDI Services, a competitor to Aramark. Both are multinational companies with offices across Canada. Both companies have some worksites with unionized workers and other worksites with non-unionized workers.
Contract flipping is a way for employers to reduce unionized labour. It is usually practiced on the lowest-paid and therefore the most vulnerable workers. According to labour researchers, in workplaces that use contract flipping, the workers affected experience “a dramatic race to the bottom.”
When St. Thomas flipped its contract for custodians to GDI Services, CUPE attempted to retain the right to represent the workers now with GDI. They brought the dispute to the New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board. On February 24, the Board ruled against CUPE. This means that CUPE has to re-organize the “new” workforce.
The same thing happened to CUPE workers at Mount Allison University many years ago. In that case, the workers were with Sodexo, and the contract was flipped to Aramark. “That was a group that had to re-organize and start all over again,” said Stacy Delaney, CUPE servicing representative for New Brunswick and PEI. Now CUPE is having to do it again at St. Thomas University.
In his book, If You’re In My Way, I’m Walking: The Assault on Working People since 1970, University of New Brunswick Professor Thom Workman describes a similar incident that occurred in the mid-1990s at UNB when the university flipped cleaning services to a new provider.
“Predictably, the former cleaning workers lost their jobs or experienced drastic pay cuts. A decade later, there is little threat that the new cleaners will ever form a union. The office of a unionized employee is now cleaned by a poorly-paid, non-unionized female who is employed by a contracted cleaning company,” wrote Workman. Noting that as he was writing, a cleaner entered his office, he added: “The essence of neoliberalism just walked through the door with a broom and a dustpan!”
Speaking to the NB Media Co-op this week, Workman observed that the main strategy underpinning contract-flipping is privatization. “It throws all the workers onto the defensive so they can often barely develop any more momentum to even get organized. It’s not cheaper for the universities. It’s not cheaper for them at all. It’s only cheaper in the sense that they’ve offloaded or offshored their labor.”
In New Brunswick, Workman explained, this is happening everywhere in the education system, for example when school boards contract work that is “seemingly innocuous, like janitorial services or cafeteria services.”
In many cases, it involves the same number of workers and so the contract flip is not cheaper for the organization, “except that it weakens its union structures,” Workman said. “Because a janitorial strike, for example, could shut down the public school system. When you contract out, you stop that.”
What about union solidarity? STU and UNB share a campus at the top of the hill overlooking the City of Fredericton. On the campus, there are many unions, including for university professors earning some of the highest unionized wages in the province. The United Campus Labour Council (UCLC) is open to all the unions on the joint UNB-STU campus. However, a UCLC representative contacted for this story said the Council wasn’t active at the time St. Thomas University flipped the custodial contract.
Thom Workman recalled an incident from the time the University of New Brunswick flipped the contract for cleaning services. “I still remember the mid 90s, workers coming into my office crying, asking us to sign a petition. And they held the demonstration outside the Arts Building. And only one faculty member went down. And as I said in my book, I’m sorry to say it wasn’t me.”
Neoliberalism includes a multi-pronged attack on organized labor, said Workman, “and union solidarity has gone down considerably. It’s been eroded and corroded in the last 25 years. Solidarity now is usually reduced to the pathetic display of posting something on Facebook.”
The prevalence of contract flipping at universities, and the threat the tactic represents to organized labour in New Brunswick more generally, is a growing concern, said CUPE’s Stacy Delaney. The issue will likely be discussed at the upcoming CUPE New Brunswick virtual AGM to be held on April 23 and 24.
Part 2 of this story focuses on the need for changes in the New Brunswick labour code, the Employment Standards Act. Read it here.
Susan O’Donnell writes for the NB Media Co-op, mostly on labour, environmental and feminist issues.