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News brief: Out of the Cold workers join a union

A new place for Out of the Cold! The 25-bed shelter is expected to open at 1221 Barrington St. this month, staying open until the end of April. (Google maps)

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Often when we write a story about workers unionizing they tell us about poverty wages, unfair managers and draconian working conditions.

That’s not what motivated the 20 or so folks working for the Out of the Cold Community Association, the low-barrier shelter space for people experiencing homelessness. 

Instead, their decision to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2 is mostly about making sure that the current positive working conditions continue, and maybe to offer a bit of an example to care sector workers elsewhere who aren’t as fortunate.

“Our unionization happened in a work context where we were actually quite supported by our employer. Our employer recognizes that our work is difficult and demanding, both physically and in terms of  our mental health,” says Campbell McClintock, a front line worker and the new union steward.

“Management has been quite respectful of our need for a living wage, and we do maintain our sense of dignity in the workplace,” he says.  

That made coming to a consensus easy.

“Within one week we all came to a contract that we were happy with and that was properly respectful of the employees, the employer, and our guests, the people we support,” he says.

The union, with its formalized processes, also brings clarity and predictability into the mix, says Katerina Stein, a frontline worker at Out of the Cold.

“Where we are a non-hierarchical organization and everyone is treated equally in that way, this creates a process for it, Stein says. “And you never know what will happen in managerial roles or at the board level. To make sure that we have these rights locked in is key.”

Not to generalize, but often there are unspoken expectations that employees in the care work sector make sacrifices, Stein says. Working unpaid overtime or settling for low wages is at times normalized in a sector that is chronically underfunded while the work is so vital and the need is so great.

“It’s definitely true that there’s often an expectation that workers care and make sacrifices to do the work. It’s kind of beautiful, but it’s also a lot to ask. If you look at the housing crisis in Halifax, a person on minimum wage can hardly afford to live here. We shouldn’t expect people to do this very important work, and then struggle and be precariously housed themselves,” says Stein.  

“By making a living wage we’ll be better supported. We’ll be stronger, and better able to support our guests,” they say.

The city and the province aren’t doing nearly enough to solve an abysmal housing crisis, and it’s up to shelter workers to soften the blow or at times to tell a client that there is no bed for them, even when temperatures are far below zero, McClintock says. 

Out of the Cold collaborates with many other service providers  in the city, so in a way how our guests are supported in one shelter affects what we do here. You’ll find different standards for things like the quality of the beds, of the space, of the way guests are treated by staff, says McClintock.

“With certain organizations these differences are very visible. Some will do everything they can to cut costs. So yes, in terms of having a political voice, I do hope that being unionized can also enable us to be more vocal about how the standard should really be better for all front line employees and shelter employees and guests,” he says.

“We want to raise standards for all front line workers so that we can all work better together and push all levels of government to do better for workers, and for folks who are sleeping precariously in negative degree weather during a global pandemic,” he says.

“Housing is a human right for all. And being unionized helps embolden us to fight for that more openly.”

SEIU Local 2 in Nova Scotia is located at 163 Wyse Road Dartmouth, NS B3A-1M5. Telephone: 902 455 1095. Toll Free (N.S. only): 1-800-563-1095.

See also: ‘Sometimes you cannot wait.’ Adsum House gives all its workers a living wage

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