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culture

Arts Program Closed by Dispute Over Union, Former Staffer Says

CUPE complaint to the Ontario Labour Relations Board may shed light on the abrupt closure of a Jane-Finch arts program.

The sudden closure of Palisades Media Arts Academy is related to an ongoing dispute at the Ontario Labour Relations Board, according to one former employee of the program. Ruben Esguerra, the former program coordinator at PMAA, told us this morning that an ongoing legal battle about the formation of a union led management to discipline staff and then ultimately to close the program in April.

Legal counsel for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the San Romanoway Revitalization Association, which was home to the arts program, began hearings before the labour board this morning. CUPE claims SRRA violated provincial labour laws by disciplining and firing Esguerra and others for their attempts to form a workplace union. CUPE lawyer Dave Steele told Derek Rogers, a labour board vice chair who is considering the case, that he hoped to demonstrate an “anti-union animus” on the part of SRRA. None of CUPE’s allegations have been proven before the OLRB.

“After the union was voted in, people who organized it were fired,” Esguerra told us in a waiting room at the OLRB building at 505 University Avenue. “Layoffs were forced, including myself and the instructor of PMAA on April 30.” Esguerra said that a letter from his employer, San Romanoway Revitalization Association, indicated that he had been terminated because program funding had expired.

Esguerra also said the administration created a petition to pressure staff members not to form a union.

SRRA executive director Stephanie Payne was present at the hearing but was unavailable to speak with us at length. “I’ve been too busy to respond to you,” Payne said of our repeated requests for comment on the PMAA closure. We telephoned board president Kevin Green for comment on the allegations, but he was not available at the time of publication. CUPE local 4772 president Farid Chaharlangi was also present at the hearings, and declined our requests for an interview.

As Torontoist first reported last month, young artists who accessed the arts program to record music and receive business training found the doors locked on April 30. They say they have yet to receive an explanation from the board or management about why the program ended.

Former participant Joel Kamalando told us that he is frustrated by the lack of communication. “We tried to e-mail Ms. Payne several times, but she has yet to respond,” Kamalando said. “It’s been harder for me to compose my music since the space closed—I’m just finding any way that I can.” Kamalando and other former participants are planning a rally for this coming Friday in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in support of the suspended arts initiative.

CORRECTION: June 25, 2014, 10:25 PM An earlier version of this story erroneously indicated that Esguerra had named specific administrators as the petition’s creators. We regret the error.

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