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Dozens of students and supporters gathered Wednesday November 22 in the Capilano University Student Union Lounge at a panel organized by the newly formed Student Worker Alliance Group (SWAG) to discuss what a Living Wage would mean for low-wage workers on campus.
The panel, called “A Dialogue on Justice,’ included Tom Walker, Labour Studies Professor at Simon Fraser University; Kimball Cariou, Editor of the People’s Voice newspaper; Deanna Ogle from the Living Wage for Families Campaign; and Máire Kirwan, Director of Staff Membership at the Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU).
Delia Tanza, Analou Espina, and Stephan Scott, who are cleaners at Capilano University and members of the Bargaining Committee, were also able to attend the panel and share their personal stories and struggles that led them to form a union with SEIU Local 2 earlier this year.
Delia Tanza reiterated the need for public support on campus for the cleaners to win a fair first contract and explained to the audience; “I want a union, and my coworkers want it, because we want safety and benefits… We work for very little salary, just one job is not enough for us… I am a single mom and work 3 jobs. I work in the morning, I work here [Capilano University] at night, and I work Saturday and Sunday… So, hopefully people here at the University can help us.”
The energy in the room was high as the crowd and panel members discussed what a Living Wage means for workers and their families; in particular, for contracted service workers who have been put in more precarious situations due to constant contract flipping and a competitive bidding model that has created a race to the bottom.
Kirwan elaborated on what HEU contracted workers said a Living Wage would mean for their lives and families. “They said that they’d be able to go home at night to say good night to their kids, or they wouldn’t have to survive on the foodbank, or they would be able to do something fun with their kids because they would have a little extra money. These are things that many of us take for granted.”
Deanna Ogle discussed examples of some successful Living Wage campaigns that have forced Employers to provide Living Wages to all direct and contracted workers, but still, there is a lot of work to be done.
A Living Wage in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland is $20.62 an hour yet as Ogle explained “almost 1/3 of families in the Lower Mainland are not earning a Living Wage.”
The overwhelming stance was that governments and public institutions should be the ones leading the way in setting higher standards.
The panel also discussed some of the challenges in winning a Living Wage and the need to keep on organizing workers and fighting for improvements.
“You can’t take anything for granted. We all have to fight to win every single battle, but you always know any gain that you make is in danger of being pushed back… There are no easy short-term solutions. Yes, having a union is almost always better than not having a union, but it’s not the end of the struggle,” said Kimball Cariou.
The Student Worker Alliance Group was founded in conjunction with negotiations of the contracted cleaners at Capilano University and have been working on pushing forward a policy of a Living Wage on campus for all workers with plans to take on other social justice issues affecting workers and students.
This Wednesday, SWAG and SEIU Local 2 will be organizing a rally to stand with low-wage working people on campus and deliver a petition and open letter to University President Paul Dangerfield that calls on all stakeholders to implement a formal Living Wage and Benefits policy for all campus workers.
Tucked away in the economically privileged North Shore of Metro Vancouver, Capilano University is an institution that includes the concepts of “an ethic of fairness” and “a commitment to our communities” in its strategic vision, yet the contracted cleaners on campus are currently making poverty wages. Cleaners are forced to work two, sometimes three jobs, to survive life in Metro Vancouver, an area with an ever-increasing cost of living, as wages remain stagnant. The trend of institutions contracting out labour has pushed industry standards for the private janitorial sector to rock bottom, as cleaning companies compete against each other in a competitive bidding process. This creates a “race to the bottom,” as price of the bid becomes the number one determining factor as to which company wins the contract.
However, the cleaners at Capilano University have fought back, and came together to fight for better working conditions by unionizing with SEIU Local 2. Despite an aggressive anti-union campaign their employer, Best Service Pros, waged, followed by legal challenges forcing the ballots from the vote to remain sealed for months, the cleaners did not give up. In June of 2017, the ballots were finally unsealed, and the cleaners won their union with a majority “yes” vote. The fight has continued this fall at the bargaining table. The cleaners are not alone in this fight though, as students, staff and faculty from Capilano university have stepped up with to stand in solidarity with them.
Upon finding out about this injustice, some Capilano University Students decided to come together and build a campaign to support all workers on campus. It was a facebook post that informed Leticia, a second year Creative Writing Major from Port Coquitlam, about the issue. She heard about the problem and wanted to help. Shaunti, a Global Stewardship student, attended a film screening and met some of the cleaners directly, from there she was eager to start a club, quickly pulling her friend, Daniel, on board. Shaunti, Daniel and Leticia would become the founding members of the Capilano University Student Workers Alliance group, “SWAG,” for short. From there, Mansoureh, Marjan, Elmira and Meltem wanted to volunteer for a cause they cared about, and quickly started attending club meetings. Vick, another student angry about the exploitative system all workers are subject to, soon joined as well.
The Campaign So Far
The club meets once a week, and meetings are open to all to discuss how to move the campaign forward, such as promoting the petition and open letter to more members of the Capilano University community. Club members attended a presentation from the Living Wages for Families campaign, learning more about how to pressure an institution most effectively to pay all its workers, both direct and contracted, a living wage. They have brainstormed and thought ahead, and handled logistics of event planning. The group is putting together a panel event to be taking place on Wednesday, November 22nd at 2:30pm in room LB 195 on campus at Capilano University, which will feature some of the leaders from the cleaning team at Cap U, along with another worker leader from the University of Washington who was intrinsic to the successful campaign for a minimum of $15/hour minimum wage on campus. Additionally, an organizer from the Living wage for Families campaign will speak to put everything in a broader context. Students have been very dedicated to promoting this event, talking to their teachers, classes and friends about it.
Students have also engaged directly with the President of Capilano University, Paul Dangerfield. Club members attended a “Student Voice” event, that was aimed at getting students to talk to the president about what they think would make the student experience outstanding. SWAG members feel that paying all workers on campus a living wage would improve their university experience because knowing injustices are taking place at Capilano University takes away from their educational experience. The president eventually stopped addressing the concerns students brought forward, but they were not deterred and stayed after the event to ensure a face to face conversation happened.
Looking towards the future
The goals of the group are for Capilano University to implement a Living Wages and Benefits Policy for all workers on campus, both direct and contracted, so that nobody who is a part of the campus community is forced to live in poverty. The group would like to see this movement expand to other university campuses too, as the problems with contracted and low-waged workers is not isolated to Capilano University. They plan to continue to meet, organize, and bring more students into the movement, and are looking forward to continuing to push for justice!