In rain and shine, maintenance workers at the Cole Harbour Place are up early in the morning to make it to their workplace by 8 am. Except instead of working until 4pm, the 25 workers are striking with the support of local residents, Canadian Auto Workers, bus and taxi drivers, and other workers from the community, such as from the Halifax Water Company, who believe in their cause.
“We’re not a bunch of greedy people who’re asking for loads and loads of money,” says John Mason, NSUPE Local 22’s president. The workers have been striking for over two weeks, and there’s been no sign of reconciliation from management.
“I’m sorry that this is happening, but we gave them a very good offer,” states Cathy Burgess, Cole Harbour Place’s general manager, “and they decided that it wasn’t good enough. It’s their ballpark now.”
With many of the workers earning only $10.37 an hour even for overtime and on holidays, the union feels that this is unfair. They asked management for a four-year contract that would give them 40 cents per hour raise; to recognize Easter, Thanksgiving Day and Boxing Day as holidays, and for part-time workers to have the same holidays as full-time workers. But management rejected the proposal, instead offering a lump sum of 53 cents per hour worked in 2011 and no raise this year, followed by 45-, 25- and 35-cent raises over the next three years. In effect, the lump sum payment meant future raises begin at a lower starting point. Management also offered only Boxing Day as a holiday.
But John Mason and the rest of the strikers are hoping that management and city council will hear them out, because although both Burgess and Cole Harbour councilor Lorelei Nicoll, who’s also on CHP’s board, deny it, they maintain that CHP is funded by the city.
“HRM owns the building,” says Adam Panko, the union’s lawyer and lead negotiator. “They own the swimming pool, the skating rink, the library and other community things in it. But they’ve created a non-profit corporation to run it, and this corporation is given money whenever they need to fix something like the window, door or the refrigerator [that keeps the ice running]. The city gives them what they need, but when it comes to workers’ wages, they say ‘That’s not us. That’s another corporation.’”
Burgess, on the other hand, maintains that all of CHP’s revenues come from membership, programs and ice rentals.
Still, despite the strike, life at Cole Harbour Place continues normally with employees from a contract company to replace the workers.
“One of my members said to me,” says Burgess, “that they’ve never seen the facility so clean. She looked at my face and said, ‘And I mean clean’.”
Mason is appalled by the management’s ease at hiring strike-breakers. He says union workers are dedicated and loyal to Cole Harbour Place, and merely want to be paid enough to raise their children and pay rent. He is also dismayed by other picket line-crossers, such as some fitness instructors and life guards, who aren’t in the union.
“That’s just not right,” he says, “You’ve got a certain amount of people who banded together to be a team, and for them to cross the picket line when all this time they were saying ‘we’ll get this done’… for them to do that behind our back was totally the wrong thing.”