Feature Image Illustration: Kate Solar

By Ashton Starr

After months of organizing and taking collective actions against their employer, workers at the Garderie Bernadette Child Care Centre (GBCCC) won labour union certification as the Bernadette Workers Union (BWU) in December 2021. The union’s struggle to improve their working conditions has also led to the recent replacement of the centre’s Board of Directors, who previously refused to recognize or negotiate with the union. These victories were part of a larger campaign by staff who signed membership cards with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an international labour union that is renowned for its unique organizing strategies and presence in traditionally non-union workplaces.

The GBCCC is a non-profit, licensed childcare facility at the University of Ottawa, which offers programs for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. While it is on the university campus and serves students and faculty, the centre is open to all parents and can accommodate up to 49 children across its programs. (This number was reduced in March 2020, following Ottawa COVID-19 protocols.)

At the time of reporting, there are 19 staff in the centre, some of whom have worked there for eight to eleven years. This includes early childhood educators, temporary and contract workers, and a cook. The centre is required to keep a minimum ratio of adults to children, depending on their age group, in accordance with Ontario regulations.

The playground of the Garderie Bernadette Child Care Centre at the University of Ottawa. (Photo: Ashton Starr)

In January 2021, an employee of the centre was terminated in what coworkers felt was a wrongful, personal, and unfair way. Current GBCCC educator Britt Griffith told The Leveller that “Everybody is very close at work and outside of work. It was like watching your close friend get fired wrongfully. It was horrible.”

The firing spread fear among employees, who felt as though they didn’t know what their options would be if they found themselves in a similar situation. A staff member reached out to Velvet LeClair of the Ottawa chapter of the advocacy group Child Care Now, who set up a meeting with the local IWW in April. The meeting was attended by LeClair, three staff members of the GBCCC, and two IWW members.

How the IWW’s solidarity unionism drove the union campaign

The IWW, also known as the “Wobblies,” were founded in 1905 as an alternative to trade unionism, which was seen as exclusive and ineffective. The union would not be confined to nations or single workplaces, but was borderless and international, seeking to represent workers of all countries, regardless of race or gender. It was also unconcerned with legislation or governing bodies, whether for lobbying or abiding by labour laws that disadvantaged worker’s rights. 

“They’re a radically democratic, rank-and-file union”

Unlike most unions, the IWW did not accept capitalism and aimed to replace it with a democratic economy run directly by workers. The union’s ideal, to this day, is to organize every worker into “one big union” and refuse to labour for the capitalist ruling class — leading to the end of an economic system that relies on workers’ exploitation and a transition into a system decided collectively by free working class people.

In order to achieve that objective, the union uses the “solidarity unionism” organizing model,  in which workers from different workplaces and industries are able to come together – regardless of their current union representation – in order to launch labour actions to have their collective demands met. In contrast, common “trade unionism” models seek to represent specific specializations of labour. These tend to become institutionalized, requiring certification to represent workers to then bargain for collective agreements and file grievances with the government when those agreements were violated. 

Due to their unique take on unionism, the Wobblies were historically active among people other unions would ignore —  hobos, for example, who were transient manual labourers that were prominent during the Great Depression.  IWW organizers were famous for riding trains from town-to-town to build strikes at lumber and mining camps, often mobilizing migrant workers. Since the union still allows any working person to join, they are currently active in industries ignored by traditional unions — including among sex workers, whose labour teeters on the edge of legality, and fast food workers, whose industry experiences high turnover amidst high demands on the job.

Devon Giguere, a GBCCC worker and member of the BWU holding an IWW poster. (Photo: Ashton Starr)

An important part of the IWW’s solidarity unionism model, dues are to be paid voluntarily by workers and collected directly by a delegate in their own local. According to the IWW, this allows for transparency and direct communication with the union membership, as opposed to dues being collected off of a paycheque, as per common trade union practice in Canada.

The IWW’s involvement with the childcare workers at the Garderie Bernadette Child Care Centre started with an online Organizer Training 101 for the new members. This training taught them how to build a union campaign from the ground up — covering topics such as including every coworker in the organizing campaign, surveying demands, and taking collective action against the employer.

“We were given autonomy”

Griffith said that she and two other staff members who signed with the IWW began meeting with their coworkers outside of the workplace within the weeks of their union training. Some of their coworkers were excited about joining a union and making positive changes in their workplaces. Others were initially scared that they would be found out and disciplined. Yet after hearing that a majority of the staff were already involved, they felt comfortable and signed on to the campaign.

“We felt like it protected us a little bit more as we were getting organized,” Griffith said of both the union’s legal support and the mutual understanding workers would be protecting and acting in solidarity with one another.

The group of workers committed to functioning as a union local early in their campaign, as certifying with the Ontario Labour Relations Board is optional and not mandatory for workers to collectively negotiate with their employers. Under the Bernadette Workers Union (BWU) banner, they conducted regular business meetings, collected dues, ratified constitution and bylaw documents, elected officers, and voted on policy proposals to present to the centre’s board and actions they would take in the workplace.“They’re a radically democratic, rank-and-file union,” John Hollingsworth, an organizer with the IWW, told The Leveller in an interview. “The workers are calling the shots in this campaign. They have a wall-to-wall organization, they’re cohesive and well-trained.”

Griffith noted that the appeal of the IWW was that “we were given autonomy,” which allowed the small workforce to control their campaign entirely — from deciding what demands they would make through to how they would make them.

The campaign had been almost entirely secretive and went unnoticed by the childcare centre’s Board of Directors. This ensured that the employer would not launch an anti-union campaign before all the employees had a chance to talk to each other.

Up until July, the unionized staff had been presenting demands to the centre’s board by means of a democratically elected staff representative. Once a majority of the permanent staff had joined, the workers decided to go public with their union campaign. They announced to the Board of Directors that the workers had formed a union and wished to negotiate with the employer on more equal terms.

The BWU used their own democratic processes to craft proposals to the board, including a hiring policy for a new executive director, updating information for parents regarding the role of the Board of Directors, and clear outlines for the upcoming annual general meeting. Each proposal was refused by the board.

The union made multiple attempts to communicate about workplace problems — whether those were faulty bylaws and policies, wage discrepancies, or understaffing. Union representatives told The Leveller that the board failed to constructively engage with staff and left email correspondence unacknowledged or unanswered for multiple weeks.

Child care industry problems are political problems

Child care policies and licensing are overseen by the Ontario Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce. Since COVID-19 policies came into effect, child care centres have been subject to unrealistic, contradictory, and demanding orders that are rarely updated.

The Ontario government also neglected to include child care workers as frontline workers eligible for early vaccines during the rollout in April 2021. This demonstrated the ministry’s neglect of the childcare industry. It took a week of backlash to the announcement — including a highly publicized protest by childcare workers at a Waterloo centre — before this oversight was rectified.

“The staff needed a break”

In the summer of 2021, both Toronto CityNews and CBC News published articles quoting child care workers who described onerous COVID-19 workplace regulations dictated by Lecce’s ministry. This ranged from requirements to constantly sanitize toys and wash surfaces to a prohibition against singing indoors. This impacted the daily tasks of employees in an already understaffed and overworked environment, and reduced the available tools they have to work with children. These new sanitation policies also did not prevent the virus from spreading, because the virus is airborne and not transmitted via surfaces. As well, children at centres often do not wear personal protective equipment and can’t always be prevented from being physically close to staff and other children.These outdated policies had a significant impact on the workload of childcare workers. By September, when the centre had increased enrollment for the first time since the pandemic began, staff were experiencing exhaustion and illnesses. With both regular industrial stresses and the pressure of continuously working during a public health crisis, a cycle of absences started. When one worker took time off, the centre would become understaffed and employees would become more overworked. Then when one worker returned, another would take leave due to exhaustion or illness. 

“The staff needed a break,” Griffith said of the conditions at this point. “We were asking for support, and the board said ‘no, you have your sick days, take them.’”

Child Care Workers Unite! (Illustration: Kate Solar)

Fellow union and staff member Lauren Wing agreed with this sentiment, stating to The Leveller, “The past two years have been an unbelievably trying time to be in the childcare industry.”

“The pandemic has truly highlighted the issues we have always faced — very little funding and support for the centers, low wages and burnout affect childcare workers all over Ontario.”

The union requested a two-week closure, so that staff could recover and provide better support for themselves, their coworkers, and the children attending the centre. This request was also denied by the board.

After one staff member was hospitalized due to workplace stresses, staff decided to collectively take sick days as a form of “sickout” action. There were not enough staff to maintain teacher-to-children ratios at the provincial legal standard, so the centre closed from September 27 to October 1. Union representatives said the board failed to listen to staff warnings or even offer notice to parents who expected the centre to remain open throughout the week.

At the time of the sickout, the union requested voluntary recognition from the board. This is an acceptable legal course for the union to negotiate with an employer, without the need to conduct an election among staff held by the labour board. The Bernadette Workers Union (BWU)  was already a functioning union with the IWW, representing a majority of permanent staff, but had not yet certified as a trade union under provincial labour law.

This request was refused on September 28 by the board and executive director. The BWU made a call-out for support, and both the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa and the Ottawa chapter of Child Care Now offered statements of solidarity, calling for the board to voluntarily recognize the union.

The Leveller attempted to contact the board at this time but did not receive a response. However, we obtained a letter sent to the IWW from the centre’s executive director Andrée-Anne Paradis on September 28. In it, Paradis stated that voluntary recognition “would essentially be circumventing GBCCC’s employees’ right to vote to become unionized.” Under this logic, the board was supporting the right for all the employees to freely unionize by refusing to recognize the majority of the employees’ unionization efforts.

The letter continues to explain that the executive director will “remain the employees’ primary point of contact for any issues” and asserts that individual staff members “should communicate directly with me for all questions and matters related to the operations, staff morale, policies, and management, trusting that they will be heard and supported.”

The BWU then decided to file for certification with the labour board in order to prove to the employer that the union represented a majority of the workplace, as well as to compel the employer to bargain with the workers in good faith. When this initial application was dismissed by the labour board on October 5, due to a technicality with the union’s name on its forms, the board took the opportunity to publicly dismiss the union, as reported by The Fulcrum.

During the application process, the employer argued that a bargaining unit would have to include all temporary and contract staff. This is a common practice among employers challenging union certifications. It inflates the required membership numbers beyond the scope of the existing campaign, which may include staff not in contact with the union and who may vote against it. 

The union did not include these workers initially, due to the precarity of their positions. Given the challenge, though, the organizers immediately signed everyone up to the union.

On October 29, the board held a meeting to seek input from staff regarding the centre’s potential sale to Andrew Fleck Children’s Services (AFCS), a larger non-profit corporation that has a history of purchasing smaller centres in Ottawa. While staff were able to ask questions at this meeting regarding the proposal, they were informed that they would not have a vote in the matter.

The following week, the BWU submitted a second certification application that led to the labour board calling for an election held electronically on November 22.

On November 19, Paradis emailed a memorandum informing the unionized staff of the electronic vote. The email reiterated the voting rights of workers under the labour law, but also warned the already-unionized staff of what a voting for a union would lead to. “Before voting, the Centre asks that you fully inform yourself and think carefully whether unionization is the right choice for you and your coworkers. The consequences of unionization are significant. Do not let anyone force you to do something with which you are uncomfortable.” 

Paradis added, “While the Union may have promised you many things, it cannot, however, guarantee them to you. Furthermore, you must remember that the Union is a business that needs money to operate. You will therefore have to pay union dues and these dues will be deducted directly from your pay.” (Of course, throughout the entire campaign, union members were already paying dues to their IWW delegate.) 

The entrance of the Garderie Bernadette Child Care Centre displays the certification of the Bernadette Workers Union. (Photo: Ashton Starr)

For the entire day on November 22, workers could sign into a site hosted by the Ministry of Labour to vote on whether they wanted the IWW  to become their sole bargaining unit. The BWU reported publicly that the election ended with unanimous support of unionization. 

The workers were trying to save the childcare centre

While the votes were being tallied by the Labour Board to legitimize the certification, the prospect of working under AFCS was still a concern among the staff.

“It’s sad to see in this city.” Griffith added, “ It’s happened to [Garderie Tunney’s Daycare] and it’s happening to us — all these daycares that are struggling financially to stay afloat. Instead of providing funding from the city or the province or whomever, the option becomes either this huge corporation-type daycare can buy you out and save you or your daycare doesn’t exist. 

In late 2020, Garderie Tunney’s Daycare announced it would close after years of rent hikes at their location in the Statistics Canada building, due to a policy change by the former Conservative federal government. The Public Sector Association of Canada publicly campaigned for the Liberal government to intervene, and they provided the new owners, AFCS with a rent waiver.

These purchases have been a pattern, Hollingsworth states, “they’ve been taking over for the past decade, taking over the parent-run childcare cooperatives.”

Griffith said that under a larger childcare corporation “there’s less choice and less individuality in the care options that are provided. They’re doing a one-size-fits-all for a lot of different types of communities and a lot of different childcare spaces.”

In the case of the Garderie Bernadette Child Care Centre, union representatives speculate that the proposal to sell to AFCS is a result of financial struggle — particularly  after the board hired an employer-friendly labour and employment lawyer from Emond Harnden to consult on all correspondence with the union and its members. The same law firm advises and represents employers and groups of employers in disputes with employees, including the University of Ottawa.

“We were trying to save our centre from the people who were running it,” Griffith indicated that the news of the sale was a let-down to staff who have been organizing their workplace for months. However, she didn’t express regret over organizing with her coworkers, having learnt the skills to take on an employer, identify issues with their workplace, and work towards change.

The union campaign overcomes major challenges and wins key strategic victories

While the union election results were known to staff, the centre’s board were awaiting confirmation as to whether or not the union would be certified. Workers were still organizing and anticipated that the board would continue an anti-union campaign at the December 16 annual general meeting.

The day before the meeting, the union emailed parents with children attending the GBCCC with a request to meet and explain their union campaign and relationship with the board. A few hours later, the labour board reported to the staff and employer that the election results were verified and unanimously in favour of the union. The meeting between the union and parents was then held that evening over a video conference, in which workers requested the support from parents who hold voting rights under GBCCC bylaws.

“We have learned a lot and the support from the IWW has been fantastic”

At the annual general meeting, all but two staff were excluded due to the centre’s bylaws. The staff who were present reported to The Leveller that they were also barred from speaking on union matters. Yet all of the parents who were eligible to attend advocated for the workers. Every member of the board resigned, and parents who were sympathetic and supportive of staff were elected to board positions.

“They are very excited to move forward working with us to make changes,” exclaimed Griffith.  In a press release by the IWW, more staff members echoed this optimism for positive changes in their workplace after these recent victories — including holding off the decision to sell the centre.

“We have learned a lot and the support from the IWW has been fantastic.” Griffith added, “It’s so valuable to organize together and to get everybody on the same page with how valuable we are as people, as employees and as coworkers.”

These victories have been significant for the staff working at the centre. Wing said that “it was an incredible relief and victory for all the workers when our certification was approved. We had been working for months towards recognition as a union with significant push back from the [board of directors].”

Jela Vojnović & Lauren Wing point to their union certification next to the GBCCC’s front doors. (Photo: Enaara Vastani)

Wing also discussed the importance of unionizing in the childcare industry.  “There is very little recourse for workers in our field if they are being mistreated or taken advantage of.” She also encourages other workers in early childhood education and childcare to make meaningful changes in the workplace and consider their organizing story.

Griffith also discussed the importance of unionizing, stating that “we have learned a lot and the support from the IWW has been fantastic… It’s so valuable to organize together and to get everybody on the same page with how valuable we are as people, as employees and as coworkers.”

There are still challenges facing the newly certified union. The union will begin bargaining for their first collective agreement with the new board, and the staff are considering a workers’ cooperative model that would give them full control over the centre’s policies. The other challenge is seeking a new space, as the University of Ottawa 2015 master plan outlines the demolition of the centre’s campus building as early as July, 2022.

Union representatives told The Leveller that an ideal outcome would be the BWU having ownership over a new centre as a workers’ cooperative, provided they can raise the funds and support to do so.

Editor’s Note: The author of this piece is one of the IWW members and trainers who met with GBCCC employees in April, 2021.

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