Manitoba

Winnipeg Harvest food bank 'blindsided' by staff unionization vote

Managers at Winnipeg's largest food bank are reeling after a vote by staff members to unionize and still trying to find out the concerns of employees, they say.

Food bank negotiating collective agreement with Canadian Union of Public Employees

Winnipeg Harvest is currently in negotiations with CUPE on the first collective agreement for the food bank's staff. (Google Street View)

Managers at Winnipeg's largest food bank are reeling after a vote by staff members to unionize and still trying to find out the concerns of employees, they say.

"We were pretty blindsided. Actually, not pretty — we were blindsided," said Winnipeg Harvest managing director Kate Brenner.

"It was quite a shock. To say we were surprised and speechless and a little sad would be an understatement."

Harvest learned about the vote in mid-November when it was served with documents by the labour board.

The food bank is now in negotiations with the Canadian Union of Public Employees over the terms of the collective agreement for the 35 full- and part-time employees.

"We are working at different proposals right now, but never has it been clearly articulated what the actual key issues that precipitated this action are," Brenner said.

"OK, what's the problem, what have we done? Is there something we can address immediately and move this forward as quickly as possible so we can just continue with the work that we do?

"We certainly respect the wishes of the employees to deal with whatever we can to make them feel better about the workplace. That's something that we want to deal with because … we want to make it work."

Chris Rigaux, ​a CUPE national representative, said the core issue behind new organizing drives is often the desire to have a voice at work and a structure to deal with concerns.

These members put their heart and soul into the work they do and we want to make sure they're treated fairly.- Chris Rigaux, ​CUPE

"The reality is, any workplace, no matter how good the boss is, you're going to have situations come up and it helps to have a grievance procedure in place," he said.

"It helps to have an advocate to speak for you, and our new members at Harvest were looking for that. These members put their heart and soul into the work they do and we want to make sure they're treated fairly."

When everything is finalized, Winnipeg Harvest will become the second large food bank in the country to be unionized. Ottawa has the only other one.

Brenner said it is hard to know how the change will impact the food bank's budget because they don't yet know the wage demands.

Winnipeg Harvest has a budget of close to $3 million and is able to move $40 million worth of food with that, said outgoing executive director David Northcott, who will retire at the end of June.

He estimates the food bank also relies on about $4 million worth of time from volunteers, so any significant increases in expenses to the organization could force management to look at where it needs to make cuts.

"It's not an easy decision. We're not government funded or United Way funded, it's straight donations," he said. "So we have to be really respectful of our donor base."

However, he has "great optimism" things will work out well. Northcott said management and staff have a mutual respect for each other and the "unique situation" Winnipeg Harvest is in when it comes to finding its dollars.

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