Bike Edmonton unionization part of a wave of non-profit labour-organizing

· The Pulse

With the employees of Bike Edmonton unanimously voting to unionize, the shop has joined a growing trend of labour organizing within non-profits in Alberta.

"For a lot of people, they're working in the non-profit that they are because they care about the work of the organization and the organization itself. Which I think can be different than a lot of businesses where you're working there for the job," said Chris Chan, an employee of Bike Edmonton who once served as its executive director. He is now part of the bargaining unit represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 1099, after it was certified in April.

The non-profit sector has traditionally seen low levels of union representation in Alberta, but there has been a surge in recent months, beginning with Alpha House in Calgary, which brought attention to traumatizing environments facing shelter workers. That was followed by successful campaigns at the Central Alberta Women's Emergency Shelter and the Trinity Place Foundation of Alberta.

"We have never had such a big push from non-profits," a CUPE organizer told Taproot. "Last year was the first time I think we've seen a big push on non-profits in Alberta in quite a while, and we're still getting calls."

The conditions experienced by staff in housing non-profits and emergency shelters staff are somewhat different from those at Bike Edmonton, which provides services and education for cyclists and promotes a safer and more widespread cycling culture. But an underlying issue among non-profits of all kinds is a culture of selflessness and service in a sector that tends to be underfunded.

Employers often seize on workers' drive to have a positive social impact to justify less-than-adequate wages and burnout-inducing workloads, CUPE president Rory Gill said.

"It really does seem to be a siege mentality within the non-profit social services sector, which is, 'We've got to keep the funding up, we've got to focus on the clients,' and anything that takes away from that is negative and looked on negatively," Gill said. "And it's used as an excuse to oppress – and I don't use that word lightly – really oppress the people who work there."

The door of Bike Edmonton with a notice posted on it, and a closeup of the notice from the Alberta Labour Relations Board indicating a unionization effort.

A notice posted on the door of Bike Edmonton informed the employer and employees that an application for union certification had been submitted to the Labour Relations Board in February. All employees voted in favour. (Supplied)

Gill said he wasn't well-versed in the world of non-profits before CUPE became involved in campaigns within the sector. He expected the social-justice-oriented organizations to be sympathetic to unionism.

"I felt it was really just a question of communication," he said of problems between employees and management. Instead, the experience has been "shockingly familiar," comparing the plight of non-profit workers to what City of Calgary employees were dealing with 50 years ago – both with the rhetoric around putting the job before yourself and the tactics used to undermine unionizing efforts.

"The tactics we saw at Alpha House were out of the early 20th century. They were isolating employees. A lot of the stick – telling them, 'You don't care about what you're doing, you don't care about the people.' They tried a bit of the carrot – some people get raises, some people don't. You know, do you want to be a troublemaker, or do you want to be with the team?"

A recurring concern for many non-profit workers has been job security. They often work on contract, meaning their positions are only guaranteed for a few months at a time. This uncertainty fosters a climate where people are less likely to speak up about issues on the job, compounded by high turnover rates and an influx of new employees – and in the case of housing and social services, a high number of newcomers to Canada – who may be unfamiliar with the rights and protections they have under the labour code.

"What some of them are finding," a CUPE organizer explained, "is if they tried to talk out about something to do with health and safety or something going wrong, then they have to be worried that maybe in the next six months, their contract may not be renewed."

Chan and the other Bike Edmonton employees, in contrast, all have permanent positions, and 135 years of cumulative experience between them. The type of precarity they want to protect against, as they enter the contract negotiation phase, is that which is caused by changes in leadership.

"With non-profits, staff are kind of reliant on the goodwill of the leadership in a lot of ways, which can change every year or two," Chan said. "I think most non-profits are not unionized, at least the small ones, but then you're really hoping that you've got good leadership. We've seen a few examples, even just in Edmonton, of non-profits that run into trouble when the new leadership (clashes) with what the staff are used to and expecting."

Despite the decidedly pro-labour attitudes of longtime Bike Edmonton staff, Chan said it wasn't until issues like pay inequity and pay disparity among employees arose that they talked seriously about formalized collective bargaining.

"All of us considered ourselves to be favourable to unions, but we'd never really been pushed to actually unionize our own workplaces," he said. "There just wasn't a motivating factor."

Chan is hoping they will reach an agreement that will establish transparency and better communication between leadership and staff, regardless of who is sitting on the board and who is working on the shop floor.

"We want Bike Edmonton to succeed," he said. "We really care about the organization and the work that it does. I think we work collaboratively and develop strong community, which are all shared values and philosophy of unions themselves."