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Ottawa federal cleaners better off twenty-five years ago than today

Union fights harassment and intimidation to organize office cleaners in Ottawa – SEIU.

Mike Martin and Anu Sharma discussing organization issuesby Mike Martin

As we reported in Straight Goods in June, the effort to organize janitors in Ottawa continues but, as the union gains a foothold in the industry, some employers are using harassment and intimidation to try keeping the union out.

Ottawa is one area of the country that has a history of unionized cleaning staff. Twenty-five years ago, all of the people who cleaned federal buildings in Ottawa were unionized workers making about $10 dollars an hour with benefits, overtime and a pension to look forward to after a lifetime of hard work.

Flash forward to today in the nation's capital and people doing exactly the same job are being paid minimum wage with no benefits or overtime and very little respect from their employer. The difference is that these workers are no longer members of a union. But SEIU Canada Local 2 is trying to change that situation with an Ottawa version of Justice for Janitors in order to clean up Ottawa.

Employers are not giving up their power easily, though. As the union gains strength, the dark side of the industry is revealed with intimidation and harassment of member organizers who are trying to build the union in their workplace. In Ottawa, one of these organizers, Kelly Mokonda, was fired because the employer said he lacked the proper documentation. He believes he was fired because he was trying to lead the union drive at the Bank of Canada office building.

Local 2 is fighting back against what they believe to be union harassment and are confident that Mokonda will be back on the job shortly. As for Kelly, he is not just going back to work he is also going to continue to work to get a union into his workplace and to represent all the cleaners and janitors in Ottawa. He feels that is the only way that they can secure not just benefits and better wages, but a better future for all.

This theme is echoed by Everald Robley. Robley is one of the key organizers for the Justice for Janitors campaign in Ottawa and an active voice in the community for immigrant and visible minority workers. He believes that the union organizing drive is one of the ways that his community can be treated with respect and dignity. He notes that they have made some headway and have managed to organize a number of city-wide contracts with major cleaning firms.

He is also clear about who he believes has caused this mistreatment of a group of workers who are almost entirely new Canadians and people of colour. In his view, the blame lies directly at the feet of a succession of federal politicians, starting with former PM Brian Mulroney who started laying off cleaners in the 1980s, right up to current PM Stephen Harper who continues to ignore their calls for justice.

Robley knows that this campaign will be successful because the workers simply have no other choice. They have to organize and mobilize if they want to not only have a union voice, but also get the respect they deserve.

If you want to support the Justice for Janitors campaign in Ottawa, you can write or e-mail your Member of Parliament or the Prime Minister and ask them to build clauses into all federal cleaning contracts that will recognize the union and allow them to organize workers on a full city-wide basis in Ottawa and throughout the country. For more information about this campaign you can visit SEIU Canada at the link below.

Mike Martin is a former activist and senior staff member with the Public Service Alliance of Canada and a freelance writer and consultant specializing in workplace wellness.

Links and sources
  SEIU website

Posted: October 21, 2009

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