OTTAWA, CA–I’m the lead external organizer for the Bernadette Workers Union (BWU), a workplace-based, IWW-affiliated “dual union” representing all non-management workers at Garderie Bernadette Child Care center (GBCCC) based on the campus of the University of Ottawa in the province of Ontario. The BWU emerged from a hot shop scenario in early 2021 (the wrongful termination of a co-worker) that pivoted to strategic organizing very quickly. As a dual union, the BWU is legally established as an independent trade union in the province of Ontario, with its own bylaws and governing documents, officers, meetings, elections, etc., which is affiliated to the IWW through a section of its bylaws as a job shop of the local general membership branch. All of the members of the BWU pay dues to the IWW individually, which is kept by the IWW body to which they are affiliated. Though a trade union within the meaning of the Labour Relations Act and related jurisprudence, the BWU does not itself collect or retain dues.
The BWU has succeeded spectacularly under difficult circumstances to build their power on the job as a union, persisting through the resignations of two executive directors as well as the mass resignation of the past GBCCC Board of Directors in December 2021, the latter following on their establishment of trade union status and a very successful union election. I recently sat down with some of the BWU members, along with Fellow Worker Alex, an organizer with the Ottawa-Outaouais GMB who is supporting the campaign, to discuss where they’ve been and where they are going.
By way of background, GBCCC provides up to 49 child care spaces to families with programs from infants through to pre-schoolers. There are 16 permanent and temporary staff (15 of which are BWU members, plus one interim executive director who is seconded from the union), and five regular on-call supply workers. As with elsewhere, the early childhood educator (ECE) workforce at GBCCC is predominantly women of color.
Currently, GBCCC receives in-kind funding in the form of free rent from the University, in return for prioritizing up to 80 percent of child care spaces for members of the university community. For about two years now, with both past and present boards of the center, the university has quietly maintained that it will not continue this arrangement once the existing building in which GBCCC is housed is demolished to make way for new student housing.
The BWU, IWW, and the new pro-union board, however, are not going to go quietly and are pushing the university to recommit to GBCCC as a vital part of the university campus, along with a coalition that has been built with all of the other on-campus workplace unions, student associations, as well as community child care advocates (including the organization that is hosting our e-petition). The BWU and its partnered unions and other organizations are running a public campaign to save the child care center and are looking to meet with the university administration to negotiate a solution that will secure a future for these workers and on-campus families seeking child care.
Fellow Worker VJ, a member of the initial organizing and later executive committee of the BWU, tells a story that will be familiar to many workers. “The number one reason why we started the union is that we were not appreciated as workers. We were always putting in extra unpaid hours. The old manager would play favorites, almost like a high school kind of thing, except that we were all adults. There was a fair bit of nepotism. Every day was a struggle and we were not happy with the management.”
Fellow Worker KF, a member who joined the union mid-2021 after the union had started organizing, adds, “One of our colleagues was wrongfully terminated. They spent all kinds of money on lawyers to settle out and to fight the union. Money was also not properly managed. We fought like hell for two years against the (old) board.”
One of the unique characteristics of this group of workers (including teachers and a cook) is the relatively longer-term job tenure at Bernadette. As noted by Fellow Worker VJ, “The average length of time that ECEs (early childhood educators) stay at work is about three years. Some of us have been here for 8, 10, 12, 18 years.” Fellow Worker KF further notes that “we are a diverse group of people … (w)e had a child who came from a family of new Canadians who did not speak English or French, and we had an ECE who was able to speak their language.”
The main vehicle by which the workers organized was through creating and building their workplace committee, and implementing their collective decisions in the workplace. The committee provided voice and vote to all BWU members in good standing, whose bylaws established them as a job shop of the local IWW GMB and to whom they remitted dues from the earliest days of their organizing. Members were signed up to the union one-by-one by the job delegate and invited to attend the next union meeting.
As put by Fellow Worker VJ: “We are a small and tight group of people, and once we started talking together one on one, we learned that all of us were feeling the same. Many wanted to quit. After we joined the IWW, and after a few of us did the Organizer Training 101, we rapidly built our committee. We identified what kinds of things we have in common and built unity with all the workers around those things.”
One early tactic that built power on the job was as follows. A staff representative position for the board that previously had been filled as decided by the then executive director was voted on in an all-non-management staff meeting organized by the BWU, at which the BWU chair was nominated and acclaimed as the staff rep. The workers called their own “captive meeting” with the executive director in order to inform them that this was their selected representative, per GBCCC’s own bylaws, and they subsequently attended the meetings as the staff representative to the board meetings. In this role, the staff representative and BWU secretary brought forward the perspective of the workers directly, and provided a communications channel that previously had been more bottlenecked. Through this channel, the union was able to put forward its perspective, expectations and demands to the employer directly.
Another one of the ways that the workers attempted to assert greater job control was through drafting, finalizing and approving policies by the committee as a whole once it had the large majority of the workplace on board. While at first members of the then-board were receptive to meeting and considering these policies, the director and the lawyer provided advice to the board to not respond to the union as they had been doing. The BWU, perhaps by virtue of its association with the IWW or perhaps because it wasn’t a certified union, was called an “illegitimate union” by the employer’s lawyer. This was used as a pretext for not negotiating or even responding to the union on its workplace demands.
Nonetheless, the employer continued to provide at least the appearance of consultation with the workers. Reality proved to be somewhat different. Following a request from the employer for staff input, the workers voted against hiring a new executive director by a motion at a non-management staff meeting organized by the new staff representative (who had, as previously noted, also been previously elected as the BWU secretary). The hiring proceeded in spite of the objection of a large majority of the workers. Fellow Worker KF observed that “it was a lazy effort to get applicants, and she wasn’t competent.” In terms of management performance, Fellow Worker VJ added that “it cost us more money than what she was being paid, the mistakes that were being made. For example, non-collection of delinquent fees from parents, not applying for available funding, and things like that.” Added KF: “She would rearrange things in the various rooms, even though these were our rooms in which we did our jobs.” In the end, noted VJ, “almost every worker signed a letter demanding that she resign.” This and related workplace pressure tactics eventually secured the desired outcome, while the board itself was reluctant to do anything, perhaps due to having to deal with the fallout of their abrupt termination of the previous executive director and other staff previously to that.
The pressure of an uncertain future with the University of Ottawa, which had been looking to end its relationship with GBCCC, combined with now having to deal with an insurgent union, led to a captive meeting held with all GBCCC employees in late October 2021 with the GBCCC board and executive director, as well as the executive director of Andrew Fleck Children’s Services, a large local child care provider with a bloated management structure that has been gradually taking over independent non-profit child care centers in Ottawa over many years. At this meeting, workers were informed that the only way that they would be able to keep their jobs and the center could be saved would be through acquisition by Andrew Fleck, and that this was the preferred scenario being put forward by the board, the university and the municipal government (which also provides funding to licensed non-profit child care centers). The workers were informed that they would no longer be able to keep their union or their seniority upon amalgamation — a statement which was both incorrect in terms of labor law as well as a likely unfair labor practice complaint in its own right. Workers spoke out against the proposal and came out even more unified, with many saying that they would sooner quit than work under Andrew Fleck’s management.
Going into Fall 2021, the employer was becoming ever more intractable in refusing to deal or communicate with the union. The membership of BWU pushed to file for certification, which was done as an independent trade union, in order to establish very clearly to the employer that the union represented a majority of the workers. When the employer’s lawyer proposed that the “deemed bargaining unit” for whom the vote would be conducted be broadened to include the 5-7 temporary workers – “padding the unit” being a typical tactic used by employers that want to reduce the chance of either a representation vote or a majority in a union election, the BWU accepted the employer’s proposal. (Unbeknownst to the employer, the union was already organizing the temporary staff.) This employer tactic backfired spectacularly when the BWU held a certification vote for a mutually agreed-upon bargaining unit of just under 20 that were all IWW red card holders and BWU members. The count was 100 percent Yes votes from all of the eligible permanent and temporary workforce, once the ballot box was unsealed in December 2022, following the BWU successfully establishing its trade union status before the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB).
Following the certification vote and related union and public pressure campaign, the board also came under intense criticism from parents at the GBCCC’s annual general meeting in December 2021. The BWU organized around this meeting and as a result a new, pro-union board was elected following the mass resignation of the 2021 board.*
In spite of the union’s wholesale victory in the shop, the future for these members is not and has not been for some time all roses. Bread is also a concern, in that these workers have not had a raise in four years and inflation is now running at seven percent this year. With the change in management, the books were also opened up to the union, and we conducted a fiscal and operational analysis to determine how to transition to a future worker cooperative for the workers at the center – which, along with matching or exceeding the best compensation practices for these employees in the child care sector in Ottawa, remains the central goal of the campaign. To get from here to there will be challenging. For quite some time, the auditor’s annual report on the books of the GBCCC have indicated that there has been ongoing concern about the GBCCC’s viability. The amount of funds spent on lawyers fees alone contributed to a financially precarious situation going into 2022, as did a number of poor management practices. Yet, under the management of seconded BWU members, the center’s operational performance has significantly improved in 2022, in spite of the ongoing challenges created by the uncertain future. Currently the union is looking to have more rotation of bargaining unit members into the interim executive director position, in preparation for future self-management.
While discussions continue outside of the labor relations framework on multiple matters, including compensation and the movement to a pay grid, formal collective bargaining is being put on hold while both the BWU and the new 2022 board of GBCCC work together to secure its future as an on-campus childcare center. (As long as there is a transition to a new governance model as a worker cooperative while existing interim management practices are pro-worker and pro-union with appropriate policies negotiated more informally with the union, it is unlikely that formal collective bargaining will ever be initiated, let alone a first collective agreement signed, as it will prove to be unnecessary.) The BWU has given a lead in building an on-campus coalition beginning in July, which has been meeting weekly and coordinating a pressure campaign against the university. This coalition, in which BWU is a continuous and active participant, now includes all of the campus-based unions for academic and support staff, as well as the two student unions, and meets on a weekly basis to coordinate its work. Most recently, there is a petition that was launched in October as well as information pickets planned for mid-November.
Fellow Worker Alex, a member of the Ottawa-Outaouais GMB who has been working with the campaign since September 2022 observes that “me and my partner hope to send our kid to Bernadette in a few years. We think that it’s ridiculous that the university would not support a worker-run child care center on campus. Being an external organizer on the campaign has been really interesting. The external coalition initiated by the BWU and the campus inter-local has been working well. Clearly these workers are a tight group, with a supportive broader community, and have built up their organization democratically.”
We ask at this juncture for all Fellow Workers to sign and distribute the e-petition and to also send a letter to the university president calling on the university administration to deal fairly with the BWU and GBCCC and our large and growing on- and off-campus coalition who also have a stake in the outcome of this struggle. The BWU and GBCCC board will be sending out a letter prepared by the BWU to the university president and board of governors shortly with the most basic of requests: information and a meeting. We are hoping that signatures on the petition and your own letters of support will help to leverage this outcome. Please don’t hesitate to share your IWW and any other union affiliations!
The BWU will endeavor to keep our fellow workers in the union informed of further developments in the pages of the Industrial Worker. Stay tuned!
-John Hollingsworth, x341916
Nous demandons à tous les camarades de signer et de distribuer la pétition électronique et d’envoyer également une lettre au président de l’université pour demander à l’administration de l’université de traiter équitablement le BWU et la GBCCC ainsi que les membres de notre coalition qui a également un intérêt dans l’issue de cette lutte. Le conseil d’administration de le BWU et de la GBCCC enverra sous peu une lettre préparée par l’BWU au président de l’université et au conseil d’administration avec les demandes les plus élémentaires : des informations et une réunion. Nous espérons que les signatures de la pétition et vos propres lettres de soutien aideront à obtenir ce résultat. N’hésitez pas à nous faire part de vos affiliations à IWW et à tout autre syndicat !
Le BWU s’efforcera de tenir nos camarades informés de l’évolution de la situation dans les pages de l’Industrial Worker. Restez à l’écoute !
*Much of this story is reported elsewhere, including in a local social justice magazine and the university student press, as well as previously in the Industrial Worker, which was also picked up on reddit r/ottawa. Solidarity letters sent in support of the BWU were sent by groups including the full-time professors’ union at the University of Ottawa as well as a local child care advocacy group. Members in Canada can also read the following threads on this topic on Wobforum, which includes all the relevant union documents as well as the OLRB decisions: Decision of the Ontario Labour Relations Board on Trade Union Status of Bernadette Workers Union and Fire Your Boss, Part 2.