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Downtown Community Centre Workers Go on Strike

Services disrupted as St. Christopher House marks 100 years in Toronto.

A striking staff member outside St. Christopher House explains the suspension of services to a resident. Photo by Desmond Cole.

About 170 employees of St. Christopher House, a downtown community centre, went on strike yesterday morning. Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3393 took the action after failing to reach a new contract deal with management. The strike affects six different sites under the St. Christopher House umbrella, and has suspended a wide range of programs and services including recreation, after-school programs, language training, employment training, and literacy programs. Unionized personal support workers who provide home care for the elderly have stayed on the job.

CUPE 3393 co-President Ilian Burbano told us that the union and its management bargained until midnight on Monday, the threshold for a legal union strike or management lockout, and CUPE decided to walk out after “a really inadequate contract proposal, especially on the monetary side, from the employer. We saw no choice but to go on strike.” Judy Snively, who heads the union’s bargaining team, stated that while management is in a financial deficit position, “it’s not really an excuse. They need to be able to find the money somewhere. People have been working without a cost of living increase since 2010 and [management is] expecting it to go on until 2014.”

Workers picketed outside St. Christopher House’s main location at Dundas Street and Osssington Avenue on Tuesday, handing out leaflets to pedestrians and explaining the closure to residents arriving to access services.

St. Christopher House Executive Director Maureen Fair, by contrast, said the union stifled negotiations by withholding its wage and benefit demands. “They only gave [their demands] to us last night at 6 o’clock,” Fair claimed. “That’s quite a frustrating tactic.” Regarding wage increases, Fair argued that “our sector is being really hammered financially. There is new money coming into the sector but it’s all for programs. We can’t add it to existing salaries.” She was nevertheless optimistic that the two sides could end the dispute quickly. “We actually have a pretty extraordinary relationship with staff and management here … We understand why they’re on strike, and we respect their right to strike very much.”

Both Fair and union leaders cited a desire for a quick resolution. Thanks to a management contingency plan, residents were notified as early as 10 days ago that a strike was possible, and that they might need to access services elsewhere. Fair described union efforts to ease the blow for residents as “terrific,” adding that “it’s gone fairly smoothly because people have been prepped.”

Snively said staff are eager to get back to work, but also want an acknowledgement that their efforts are valued. “There’s an expectation often that people who do this work are doing it for the love of the work. Yes, we love the work, but we also love to eat and pay our rent. So we think in the long run this is worth it.”

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