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Support striking Tropicana workers

By: 
Brian Champ

November 17, 2020

On Monday November 9th workers at Tropicana Community Services in Scarborough went on strike after talks with management failed to bring an agreement. The workers organized with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2 in July 2019, but an agreement on a first contract has proved elusive. Workers voted overwhelmingly to strike on October 21st. Adrian Yusuf, a job placement service worker, explained his “yes” vote:

"It’s been over a year that we’ve been trying to negotiate a fair deal with management. Some of us have had 15 years of wages freezes and they want us to accept another 3 or 4 years. I can’t hold on for that long.

At the same time that frontline workers are told they will not get wage increases, the Tropicana board has awarded at least one bonus to a manager. This and a general lack of respect for workers from management has increased the bitterness in the workplace.

Tropicana is geared towards serving the Caribbean, Black, and African communities and the people of Scarborough have long benefited from their services, including job placement, youth programs, and childcare centers. These services are delivered by predominantly racialized workers who have a strong connection to the communities they serve. In an open letter to donors urging them to put pressure on the organization to treat the workers fairly, the strikers put the case:

"Tropicana bills itself as a social justice organization ... But this hasn't stopped Tropicana from engaging in years of poor treatment and wage freezes, leaving workers behind as Toronto's cost of living escalates. These poor working conditions have shrunk Tropicana's workforce by 32 people over the last year alone."

The management has drawn out talks over a first contract while forcing existing workers to take on the work of those lost to attrition. And many Tropicana workers, such as those in the daycare centres, are frontline workers during these pandemic times. One of the questions asked by the strikers is "Why is Tropicana management refusing ... to pay a fair wage for essential work? ... to treat workers fairly and with respect?"

Instead, starting on the first day of the strike, Tropicana hired strike-breakers from MeLor Inc., a child care staffing agency along with extra security guards. It's disgraceful that a publicly funded agency is undermining workers' right to a fair collective agreement. Early Childhood Assistant worker Edith Solano explained, “The parents did not want to leave their kids with these strikebreakers. They turned back and brought their kids back home. Some of them could not move their work shift right away but said that they would leave work early to pick up their kids. They don't support management in hiring strikebreakers that they don't know and trust."

Everyone who cares about the community services that improve workers' lives has a stake in supporting the Tropicana workers in their fight with the boss. But the boss is not just the agency board: it's also the Ford government, whose Bill 124 restricts wage increases on average to 1% for public sector employees, which includes workers at non-profits that receive Ontario funding of at least $1 million. According to their annual reports, Tropicana currently receives $5.76 million from the Ontario government, 66% of their revenue, mainly to fund their employment services.

But in 2016, this funding was $9.1 million, then 80% of their revenue - in 2017 it dropped to $5.4 million, a fall of 41% in one year. This is emblematic of cuts to programs that have happened under both Liberal and Tory governments. More recently, the Ontario government's Trillium foundation total grant money was cut by $15 million in 2019, a cut of 9.4% to this lifeline of support for community programs and services. But this general atmosphere of cuts to social services and programs is no excuse for Tropicana management as their wage freeze was already standard operating practice.

Nevertheless, these cuts are just one part of the Ford government’s broad cuts to healthcare, education and public services that have already happened, or are slated to happen soon. And on top of that they have suspended labour rights for public service workers and thrown out environmental protections with powers they’ve given themselves due to the Covid emergency.

Like many workers in the public and non-profit sectors, the Tropicana workers care deeply about their clients and the services they deliver, but their frustration level has reached the breaking point. In the words of Edith Solano, “We pour our hearts and souls into the work we do for Tropicana because we love the community. But we can’t live on such a low wage. Striking is really the last thing we want to do, but after over a year trying to bargain in good faith, we are running out of options.”

This is the kind of energy that can spark a broad fightback against the Ford government agenda of cuts and privatization and translate the anger that is simmering under the surface into the militant action that is needed.

As well as articulating the demands of the strike, many picket signs also said simply "Black Lives Matter". The majority of the board, managers, workers and clientele of Tropicana are people from racialized communities who all may have rallied, marched and participated in other forms of action as a part of the movement for Black lives in the last number of months. But the board and the management experience a different material reality from that of the frontline workers and the clientele they serve. According to the 2019 sunshine list, the executive director of the agency made $100,000 while workers’ wages have been frozen for more than a decade. Black workers’ lives matter, and the fight for a living wage and good working conditions is an important part of the fight for racial justice and equity.

There are other approaches than doing the Ford government’s dirty work, which is the Tropicana management approach. The idea of defunding the overblown budgets of the police department, and reallocating funds to programs and services that help BIPOC people overcome the barriers that they face living in a racist society has gained traction with the rise of the movement. And we must demand that these redistributed funds be used to pay a living wage to the frontline workers delivering these essential services.

Support SEIU Local 2 union members on strike for a first contract including a wage increase and greater respect from management to the workers delivering the services.

Socialist.ca is proud to have visited the picket line and shown solidarity to the workers; NDP MPP Jill Andrew, who used Tropicana services as a youth, has written a letter of solidarity with the strikers; members of CUPE, USW, the carpenter’s union and labour council have visited the picket line to show solidarity.

To get all the details about the strike and how to donate and other ways to support this important fight, go to TropicanaStrikes.ca.

Contact Executive Director Raymund Guise at (416) 439-9009 to urge that Tropicana workers be given a pay raise and that they bargain in good faith.

Watch -  Voices from the picket line

Join the rally - Saturday, November 21

 

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