Workers say they want staff and residents to have a stronger voice in the Downtown Eastside Building
Staff at a Downtown Eastside housing unit for low-income British Columbians are getting back the support they provide everyday after the workers unanimously decided to join UFCW 1518. The vote took place on March 3 and 4 and culminated in a strong show of comradery between the staff.
Two workers at the Orwell building said they look forward to “being able to discuss ongoing issues and help solve them as a team and be better connected with the community.”
Solidarity and compassion drove this organizing effort, and it’s what the new members want more of at their intense workplace. Owned and operated by not-for-profit Vancouver Native Housing Society (VNHS), The Orwell is a supportive housing building, home to 55 tenants – majority Indigenous – who require mental health support, and more specifically, support with drug use, disabilities, and intergenerational trauma.
Staff at the Orwell provide 24/7 frontline support that ranges from housecleaning to mental-health crisis intervention; they are also exposed to overdoses and instances of violence sometimes.
“With the limited training we have, we’re trying to provide the most culturally appropriate support that we can for these folks,” says one worker, but staff feel management is not supporting them enough.
After researching the contracts at other Vancouver Native Housing buildings, two of which are already unionized with UFCW 1518, and other comparable non-profits, the workers learned that they’re earning at the low end of the wage scale. Their other benefits are minimal too, considering the emotionally straining work they do, which is taking a toll on their own mental health and personal lives.
“Being a part of a union, my coworkers and I felt, would help protect us and help bring our wages up,” says one employee.
The group also wants to usher in several other improvements, including:
- Better extended healthcare benefits, which they want to expand to part-timers.
- A safer work environment with more support from management.
- Job security so staff can support themselves and their families.
- Fairer wages (equity between staff)
- Good work-life balance.
The members want to create a space where they can advocate for themselves – where everyone has a voice at the Orwell Building, especially more marginalized members of the community. One worker says:
“I the union will be a stronger representative for migrant and ESL voices that are staffed at VHNS.”
The new members are equally dedicated to getting residents the platforms they need to advocate for themselves. “We think the tenant should be able to make their own decisions regarding medication, police involvement, institutionalization,” says one member on staff.
Their inspiring organizing drive is a reminder that when workers take grassroots action on the shop floor, their efforts rarely stay contained to the workplace – their power spills into the streets, the home and the community.