An addictions centre in Calgary, Alberta, known for its progressive approach to tackling the opioid and housing crises, is facing allegations of “very aggressive” union busting after sending anti-union emails to staff and firing an employee who played a key role in organizing.
On March 26, after months of organizing, Dominique Damian-Wallace and her co-workers at Alpha House submitted signed union cards to Alberta Labour Relations Board, which kickstarted the official unionization process and paved the way for a union vote. Two days later, an employee who was instrumental to the union effort was let go, Damian-Wallace said.
“When the employer became aware of the drive, it fired a person very instrumental in the union information campaign, a person who had a very good employee performance review,” Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Alberta president Rory Gill confirmed. “Our belief is it was the fact that they wanted to get rid of the union.”
Alpha House told VICE World News the decision to terminate the employee was “unrelated” to the union and “made well ahead of the certification,” but did not say why the person was let go.
Alpha House offers overnight and daytime shelter for people struggling with addictions, detoxification programs, as well as community housing programs that help their clients find safe and permanent accommodations. It also does community outreach, including an encampment team that helps people struggling with homelessness find a place to stay, and mobile teams that work with police and paramedics to “reduce unnecessary and inappropriate uses of these services.” Alpha serves hundreds of southern Albertans at any given time.
Damian-Wallace, who currently works in housing, said unionization is meant to support front-line workers who’ve been battling three crises—opioid use, housing, and the pandemic—at once. “It’s all taking a toll on us,” Damian-Wallace said. “I don’t think we were expecting a hoorah from our employer, but we were taken aback by the severity of the action.”
Other staff complained about other union-busting measures. In an April 27 email to employees shared with VICE World News anonymously, Alpha House executive director Kathy Christiansen said, “Here’s why you should vote no,” before offering several reasons why she believes the union is a bad idea, including union dues, rigid rules, and possibly lower wages.
“If Alpha House becomes unionized, your current wages, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment will be subject to the give and take of the collective bargaining process. There is no guarantee that your current compensation package will go up or even stay the same,” the email says.
An Alpha House spokesperson said the organization “respects the rights of our valued employees to participate in the union” and denied union-busting allegations, saying they “run contrary to our values.”
According to Gill, all the tactics amount to a “pretty typical playbook when you get an anti-union employer.”
“They've been really vociferous and very, very aggressive in their tactics with employees,” Gill said.
Damian-Wallace called management’s response “upsetting.”
“Our work is all about giving our clients respect and self-determination and giving them choice... But the response is to not give the same respect to staff,” she said. “It’s upsetting because we are all here for social justice and it doesn't seem like we’re on the same page.”
CUPE and staff like Damian-Wallace said they want Alpha House management to take a neutral, hands-off stance. They also want to see the fired employee’s job reinstated, and for front-line workers to get more support and a “louder” voice, so they can have a say over what happens going forward.
Staff have already cast their ballots in the union vote, but they’re unable to count them until the labour board makes a decision that’ll determine whether team leads at the company are eligible for union protection. There’s no date set yet.
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