OLB challenge: Did Hamilton janitors lose jobs because they joined a union?

The dismissal of eight workers from cleaning jobs at a downtown office tower has sparked a challenge by the Service Employees International Union.
Delma Perez and seven co-workers were laid off of from a job as night cleaners at a downtown office tower. Their dismissal is the subject of a new complaint to the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The filing alleges their contracts were not renewed because they unionized in the spring. (Supplied)

Sitting in a buzzing Jackson Square coffee shop, Delma Perez’s voice begins to tremble as she describes the effect of her recent layoff from a job as a night custodian at a downtown office tower.

"They’ve removed the food out of our mouths, especially at this time of year, with Christmas coming," she says, speaking through an interpreter.

Now she and her former co-workers are taking their case to the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

The native of El Salvador used to work for Unicco, a firm that provided janitorial services to Wilson Blanchard, the company that owns 25 Main St. West. She was a cleaner in the building, scrubbing sinks and sweeping floors after-hours for just above minimum wage.

Though she works another job during the day, Perez says she still needs her old night job, which she held for nearly a year and a half. She has bills to pay and also sends money to one of her daughters, who still lives in El Salvador and has children of her own.

Perez and her co-workers cleaned at 25 Main St. W. The buliding belongs to Wilson Blanchard, a firm that owns many properties in the Hamilton's downtown core. (Google)

"She’s upset," says Ingrid Amaya, Perez’s other daughter, who worked alongside her mother at the building since the spring.

"It’s her daughter, it’s my nephews that she can’t help."

The two, along with six other workers — almost all immigrant women — received layoff notices from Unicco in late-November, after Wilson Blanchard chose not to renew the firm’s contract.

A property manager changing contractors is hardly unusual. It’s how their dismissal may have transpired that has spawned a complaint to the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

The new contractor, Evergreen Maintenance Services, chose not to hire Perez and her former colleagues. The filing, submitted by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2, alleges that the Evergreen made this decision because the workers joined the union in May.

According to the province’s Labour Relations Act, employers are not allowed to "refuse to employ or to continue to employ a person, or discriminate against a person in regard to employment" for belonging to a trade union.

 The submission claims that, in a conversation between SEIU organizer Ritch Whyman and Tolga Tukoff who owns Everclean, "[Tukoff] told [Whyman] he did want to be unionized at the location" and that "he was contemplating walking away from the contract in order to avoid being unionized."

Tukoff refused to comment on the contents of the Labour Board filing, but noted he chose to hire workers with whom he was familiar for the 25 Main St. W contract.

"I work with the people I work with, the contractors I work with," he said.

The filing also accuses Robert Miles, a property manager for Wilson Blanchard, of dropping Unicco because it employed unionized workers.

SEIU representatives contacted Miles after learning of the layoffs. The complaint alleges that during the exchange, Miles "indicated that he did not want a union at the building and that he did not want to be hamstrung by a union contract."

"I’d prefer not to comment, because I believe that it will be resolved through the Labour Board," Miles told CBC Hamilton with regard to the complaint.

According to Kevin Robinson, a labour and employment lawyer in Toronto, provincial law stipulates that in this kind of scenario the onus is on the new contractor to decide whether to carry on employing the workers.

A firm in Evergreen’s position, he said, could be found guilty if the adjudicator finds that the company made its decision based upon an anti-union bias.

"If they reach that conclusion, then it is almost certainly a breach of the Labour Relations Act."

Consequences for a violation vary greatly, he said. If found guilty, a firm could be ordered to re-employ the workers or to allow new hires to unionize.

For its part, the SEIU says it’s concerned about how the group’s dismissal bodes for low-wage workers in Hamilton, citing Wilson Blanchard’s reported plans to buy up and redevelop more properties in the downtown core.

"Here is Wilson Blanchard saying they want to revitalize downtown," said SEIU Local 2 representative Diego Mendez. "Is this what we have to look forward to when they’re putting people out of work?"

Though the outcome of the case brought by Perez and her mother is far from certain, Amaya says she hopes this process will help to shed light on what, for her, are unanswered questions.

"I would like to have [representatives from Wilson Blanchard and Evergreen] in the same room for them to see where we’re coming from, whether they care, whether they don’t.

"We’d like to have a sit-down and state our point."