St. Thomas University recently “flipped” its contract for custodial services, leaving the workers without a union and collective agreement to protect their rights. The incident convinced the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE NB) to push for changes at the political level.
Yesterday, April 24, at the CUPE NB virtual annual convention, the union passed a resolution to lobby the New Brunswick government to enact legislation that would require companies to honour collective agreements when bidding to take over services.
In its resolution, CUPE noted that in New Brunswick, when an organization (such as St. Thomas University) flips a service contract to a new company, the unionized employees of the previous company lose their union status. When this occurs, the workers lose all the rights and benefits “that they painstakingly negotiated” in their collective agreement.
Contract flipping allows new companies to submit lower bids for services up for tender, given that they are not obligated to honour the benefits that the union previously negotiated for the employees. In addition, the new company may be uninterested to hire the previous employees.
Stacy Delaney, CUPE servicing representative for New Brunswick and PEI, is leading the organizing drive for the workers under the new contract at St. Thomas. She explained the challenge. For starters, CUPE has no information about the new workers hired, including how many were re-hired from the previous contract.
“The contacts we had for the original group did not get re-hired,” said Delaney. “So, trying to connect with folks hired by the new company has been challenging, because folks are fearful and not in a position to have open conversations about organizing.”
Unions attempting to fight contract-flipping focus on something called “successorship rights.” If written into provincial labour codes, successorship rights can guarantee that unions will continue to represent workers when a contract is flipped to a new employer. New Brunswick’s labour code does not give that protection to workers.
“We have current locals in the same situation, they rely on a bidding and tender process, and fortunately, the employer has always renewed the contract that they had,” said Delaney. However, “after seeing what happened at St. Thomas University, it opened our eyes, because we just organized a new group, and we could face that challenge with them when their contract is up. It’s a huge issue.”
After the incident at St. Thomas University, the CUPE leadership “looked internally to ask: what are we going to do about this? We have to get some sense of security for these folks,” said Delaney. CUPE decided to take their case to the labour board, and they lost the case.
In its judgement against CUPE, the New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board referenced Ontario legislation that protects workers in a similar situation. The Board stated that “similar legislative amendment is required in New Brunswick” to cover future situations like the St. Thomas University case.
Ensuring successorship rights requires political support. In Ontario, the Liberal Wynne government brought in the legislation that strengthening unions’ successorship rights when a contract is flipped. Section 69.1 of the Ontario Labour Relations Act covers building services, including cleaning, food, and security services. In these sectors, workers automatically have successor rights for union representation when the contract is flipped.
This provision in the Ontario labour code was applied in a recent incident in Windsor. When the City of Windsor announced it was contracting out its custodial services, CUPE brought this labour code provision to the attention of the City. Upon learning of this legal requirement, the new company withdrew its bid for the contract. After that happened, the City of Windsor announced it would hire seven new cleaners, all of whom will be represented by CUPE.
British Columbia also has labour code legislation that guarantees successorship rights to unions when a contract is flipped, and the BC legislation covers more employment sectors than the Ontario code. The BC legislation covers building cleaning services, security services, bus transportation services, food services and non-clinical services in the health sector. In these sectors, the new contractor is bound to follow the provisions of the previous contract, including keeping the union representing the workers.
Ensuring that similar revisions are made to New Brunswick’s labour code, the Employment Standards Act, “will certainly be a lengthy process,” said CUPE’s Stacy Delaney. The current Higgs government has a history of anti-union practices.
However, the first step toward legislative change is to advocate for it, and by voting to do that on April 24, CUPE NB has signalled it is up for the challenge.
The same day at the convention, the delegates elected Steve Drost as the new president of CUPE NB for a two-year term and Sharon Teare as the First Vice-President for a one-year term. Drost and Teare will join Kim Copp, the CUPE NB Secretary Treasurer, on the inner executive. The new team will have their work cut out for them but as seasoned union leaders and activists, they should be well up for it.
Part 1 of this story described how contract flipping, an anti-labour and anti-union tactic, has been used at universities in New Brunswick.
Susan O’Donnell writes for the NB Media Co-op, mostly on labour, environmental and feminist issues.