Workers at Halifax-area shelter Bryony House rally as strike deadline looms
Staff at the emergency women's shelter have been without a contract since March 2019
Bryony House staff and their supporters held a rally Thursday morning, as bargaining teams worked with a conciliator to avert the possibility of a strike or lockout at the Halifax-area shelter early next week.
The most recent collective agreement between staff and the employer expired on March 31, 2019.
Shelley Robinson is the local president of the 23-person unionized staff at the shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence.
Robinson said staff are trying to avoid a strike and hoping to reach an agreement at the conciliation meeting Thursday. Staff will be in a legal strike position at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 23.
She said the major sticking point for the staff is to preserve three seats on the organization's board of directors, which are laid down in the expired contract and have been in Bryony House collective agreements since the 1990s.
"The reason why we had those seats in our collective agreement and we've continued to have those seats all through the years, is that the staff reps on the board, they bring the voice of the women and children to the board of directors," Robinson said.
Robinson said the staff reps are able to speak about the concerns from the women and children who stay at the 24-bed shelter.
"So, how has domestic violence impacted the women and children who are staying at Bryony House? What type of service delivery is best practice for the women and children staying at Bryony House?"
Kristina Fifield, who is also on the staff bargaining team, agreed.
"We're the front-line workers. We carry the expertise in our services with our clients, and we need to be at the table," she said.
Bryony House executive director Maria Mac Intosh shared a statement where she said the board "remains hopeful" a deal can be reached.
She said under the collective agreement, any staff member is allowed to attend any board meeting.
"The board of directors is not involved in the management, development or implementation of the programs and services; this happens at the operational level where staff also have opportunities to provide input and influence," she wrote.
Mac Intosh said the board has undergone a "governance review" that recommended removing the sections of the collective agreement that make employees directors.
"In this review, it was reaffirmed that all directors are subject to conflict of interest standards and must act in a fiduciary capacity which requires independence," she wrote. "We wish to be very clear that the employer is not silencing any member on staff."
Robinson, who is also a community outreach co-ordinator, said her members disagree that there would be any conflict of interest with having staff reps.
"With any personnel issues or with any collective bargaining issues or with anything around discipline, the staff reps on the board are not privy to those conversations," she said.
Sheila Davis holds one of the existing three staff seats on the board. She has worked at Bryony House for almost 25 years.
"We know what limits are right now," she said. "It's very clearly spelled out: when we can be part of discussions and when we can't, when we can vote and when we can't. So what we want is to continue to be able to ask questions and to be able to have an influence in that way, where we can engage as equals at the table."
Bryony House lists 17 people on its board of directors. The shelter is currently full. In the case of a strike, Robinson said not all staff plan to go on the picket line at the same time.
Another outstanding issue for the staff is that management has offered five days of domestic violence leave, while the standard in the federal government is 10. In the most recent expired contract, there is no mention of domestic violence leave.
Robinson said as an organization that works against domestic violence, Bryony House should be leading the way.
"We're also a feminist organization," she said. "Part of this whole campaign was not to be silenced. We've had a voice and we've had a vote at the board table for going on 30 years. We don't want to go back in time."
The demonstration took place outside the Bedford Highway office of Kelly Regan, the provincial minister for the Status of Women.
In a statement, Regan told CBC "protecting and supporting vulnerable women and children" is a priority for the provincial government. However, Regan said out of respect for the bargaining process, "we will not discuss details of negotiations publicly. We encourage both sides to remain focused on the clients they serve."
Regan also encouraged anyone experiencing intimate partner violence to call a domestic abuse helpline through the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia at 1-855-225-0220.