This article, written by Philip Girvan, StFXAUT Communications Officer, appears in the Summer 2019 edition of The Beacon.
The Beacon’s Spring 2018 issue profiled CUPE Local 1636, the Union representing StFX Safety and Security Services employees. This issue profiles UNIFOR Local 2107’s StFX University bargaining unit.
StFX employees from the largest of the eight bargaining units that comprise UNIFOR Local 2107. The R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home unit, Sodexo Food Services unit, the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Martha’s (Bethany) unit, the East Coast Credit Union unit, the Greenway Claymore Inn & Conference Centre unit, and the Mira Nursing Home unit in Truro are the others.
Cleaners are the largest group in the university bargaining unit. Maintenance workers, including carpenters, electricians, painters, and plumbers and other skilled trade workers, compose the rest.
Sylvia Phee, the StFX University Unit Chair, has a long history of union service. Phee assumed Shop Steward duties shortly after joining Custodial Services in August 2001. Following that service, Phee served on various union committees before stepping back for a period of time.
In the spring of 2013, the unit was in the middle of intense collective bargaining. Relationships among on-campus unions and StFX University administration were increasingly tense. The StFXAUT had struck for several weeks. The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) Local 88 had come close. Phee recalled that “there was a strike vote … and in an effort to avoid that we had gone to the table on more time with a conciliator”.
Meanwhile, two employees of Bird Construction, the company contracted to build the University’s new residence buildings, were seriously injured following a six meter fall from scaffolding. One was the partner of the then Unit Chair. The Chair immediately stepped down which prompted Phee’s return to union service.
“It had to be done. Somebody had to step in”, Phee explained. “There’s a serious responsibility among Union Members that needs to be recognized. It’s not one, it’s all of us. So, in the event that she couldn’t, somebody had to”. Phee described it as the unit’s “last hurrah hurrah… We had the meeting with the Negotiating Team and their Negotiating Team, and a conciliator as a last ditch effort to try and get a collective agreement, and, at the end of it, we did prevail”.
Phee credited the Union with providing the training, knowledge, and confidence that allowed her to assume a leadership role during the middle of intense collective bargaining negotiations:
[The experience] was a little unnerving, there’s no question about it. … I understood exactly what was happening so you would know it’s not going to be easy… You’re just going to go in and do what you have to do. I’ve had, over the years, a lot of extensive training with my Union. I’ve been away on several courses. Had taken a collective bargaining course through UNIFOR.
The most recent collective bargaining agreement ended in October 2018. Since then, there has been a change in administration personnel. Phee describes the current administration as “willing to listen. … They recognize that we exist. … We feel more included. We feel that if you do have a concern or an issue, there’s certainly an avenue”. The decision to grant Custodial Services StFX email addresses was cited as an example. Prior to this Custodial Services staff were, as Phee explained, “somewhat excluded from any functions or things that would come through that email”.
Phee described other overtures from administration to “try and change culture within our department, more positively [such as] “lunch and learns …activities…to bring people together [to] meet, exchange, build relationships, and just create a more positive place”.
Phee noted the province’s recent $3.95 million dollar contribution to the university’s 2018-2019 annual operating funding, arguing that this will weaken any administration attempt to plead poverty. Phee noted that “going in, the University is not any more in a deficit. I’m not suggesting that they make themselves poor either but you know we all deserve a little piece of the pie”. Despite the cash infusion, Phee expects negotiations will be “tough”.
The increasing number of buildings on campus will impact both custodial and maintenance workers. Phee referenced the 2017-2022 StFX University Strategic Plan, particularly the pillar titled “Stewardship and Sustainability” and questioned whether funding is in place to support the goals outlined in that document and whether staff numbers will increase in sync with the University’s ambitious building plan. An understaffed custodial services team managing the expectations surrounding The Mulroney Institute for Government is, Phee says, “going to be fairly stressful”.
The decision membership will make concerning the Nova Scotia Public Service Superannuation Plan (PSSP) is separate from any new collective bargaining agreement. Phee describes the existing pension plan as “years behind. We’re currently now about 15 base years back”. Electing to move to the PSSP, a registered target benefit pension plan, will require a majority vote from membership.
Phee emphasized the close relationships that custodial services personnel often develop with students particularly those living in residence. In certain instances the custodial staff play the roles of surrogate parents; other times, they’re a shoulder to cry on. Phee said that she and her colleagues “really, really love the students. They do their job for the students. It’s not about the administration. It’s about the students”. They help students with laundry, suggest to sick students that they get themselves to the doctor, share chocolate when a student is down. Phee told The Beacon that “it’s kind of nice to have that connection because they move away from home and they’re frightened. They’re young. They leave. They have no kind of guidance. Everything’s kind of free reign. Where they had a sort of structure. Where there was mom and dad and rules”.
In addition to the work of custodial services, Phee highlighted the good work being done by all UNIFOR members: “We have tradespeople, we have power engineers, and we have rink attendants and grounds transportation so these folks … the needs are very different across the board. Grounds do a wonderful job. They keep the campus looking very good. They’re excellent. The trades guys are really good guys. They get done what they need to get done”.