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Richmond hotel and striking workers deadlocked after 6 months

Strikers are bracing for a cold winter with no end in sight for the strike.

It’s been six months since the Sheraton Vancouver Airport employees walked off the job to demand a fair living wage.

A walk down Westminster Highway and Elmbridge Way shows strikers either stationed in small blue tents or hovered around heaters, undeterred by the wet winter that has now arrived.

One “on strike” sign has also been decorated with garlands and clappers, just in time for the holiday.

However, tattered posters with the words “Beware! Scab!” strewn across the sidewalk and a sign that reads “No amnesty for scabs” displayed at the picket line both tell a different story.

Since the strike began, around 50 people have crossed the picket line and returned to work while negotiations remain deadlocked.

After the latest meeting with the mediator on Dec. 1, the Sheraton sent out an email to employees claiming the union, Unite Here Local 40, “has no interest in reaching a settlement” and “wants a long strike.”

The hotel told employees the mediator is removing herself from the process because she “sees no prospect of settlement.”

“All indications are that the strike will continue through winter,” reads the Dec. 1 email obtained by the Richmond News.

The union, on the other hand, told its members the hotel “refused to make a full counter offer” and its economic proposal remains unchanged.

“Larco needs to meet and provide a full proposal to your bargaining committee,” reads its email sent on Dec. 1.

“Your union and bargaining committee are holding firm to winning the best possible contract with the wages, benefits and rights that every Sheraton worker deserves.”

In a non-binding recommendation for settlement issued by mediator Amanda Rogers on Dec. 7 and obtained by the News, she noted the parties “remain deadlocked on the issue of wages” and other issues despite going through mediation.

“On December 1, 2023, almost six months into the strike, I concluded that further mediation would not lead to a resolution of this protracted dispute,” wrote Rogers as she explained her decision to issue the recommendations.

In the 36-page document, Rogers outlined a list of recommendations for settlement to be submitted to a secret ballot vote by union members.

“In the absence of such intervention, I suspect this dispute will carry on for many, many more months, and that while much litigation will unfold, there will be very little bargaining during that time,” she wrote.

One of the issues outlined include the hotel’s proposal to bar the union from fining members who crossed the picket line, which became “a major issue in bargaining” with the union insisting to hold onto its right to recover the fines while the hotel insisted on providing amnesty.

She noted the union changed its mind on Dec. 1 and asked to focus on getting a deal before discussing this issue.

Rogers added unions are democratic institutions and must be “guided by the will of the majority of the members.”

“Given the realities of this strike, it is an appropriate time, in my view, to test the will of the members to end the dispute,” she wrote.

Discontentment with the union

Mel Woo, who works in maintenance at the hotel, has been picketing since June. His resolve, however, seems to be wavering.

“All the people who crossed the picket line have done so because they have lost faith in the union to negotiate, communicate clearly and openly to all members and hear every member’s concern,” he said.

“Right now, the contract demands are based on, shall we say, a selective group.”

Woo told the News he is not allowed to cross the picket line because he was hired after the union issued bargaining notice.

According to the B.C. Labour Relations Code, employers are not allowed to use the services of people hired after the date of the notice to commence collective bargaining. Unite Here Local 40, issued a notice on March 20, 2020.

One of Woo’s main concerns lies in the fact that members have yet to vote on any proposals from the hotel.

“Since June 15, we’ve never had an opportunity to vote down any counter-offer from the company. And that’s what’s driving a lot of people to think, ‘What is going on?’ … They’re not listening to us. They’re not returning back to us with information,” he explained.

Woo added that, although the engineering department tried to participate in the bargaining committee, they were excluded from the process because he expressed he could not “pick a side” between the union and the hotel.

He also questioned the union’s transparency and communication, claiming bargaining committee members in charge of relaying information don’t communicate with strikers they don’t like.

“So if you don’t fit their dialogue, you’re off. You’re excommunicated,” he said.

“So basically, I’m not represented by my union. I’m just told that I’m going to be on strike.”

Sharan Pawa, spokesperson for Unite Here Local 40, told the News members should raise their issues with the union.

“The members on the picket line have invested many years, some decades, working for this hotel. You can always find a disgruntled person who doesn’t agree with the larger group,” she said.

“It’s more rare to come across a group willing to fight for respect and decent treatment on the job for as long as it takes to win.”

Cut benefits

Last week, the Sheraton and a group of employees each filed complaints with the Labour Relations Board, accusing the union of being responsible for the termination and reduction of benefit coverage.

In the Sheraton’s complaint to the Labour Relations Board filed on Dec. 1, it claims the union failed to continue benefit contributions for some bargaining unit employees during the strike and refused to rectify the issue.

The complaint, submitted by Gall Legge Grant Zwack LLP to the Labour Relations Board on behalf of the Sheraton, sought an order that the union stop discriminating against employees in the bargaining unit and reinstate benefits coverage for all employees.

“It has become clear that the Union did not make contributions to the Benefits Trust in June, July and/or August 2023 for at least some members of the bargaining unit, with the result that their benefits coverage has lapsed or been substantially reduced,” reads the application obtained by the News.

The application further claimed the issue “does not appear to have been a simple administrative error” by the union and suggested the union targeted employees for “their perceived or actual failure to fully support the strike.”

Woo said he also spoke to another union member whose benefits were cut off and was worried her medications would cost “hundreds of dollars.”

When the News met with bargaining committee members Shaelyn Arnould and Felisha Perry at the picket line, they acknowledged there was an issue that happened over a two-week period and attributed it to “some mistake in the computer” when the union switched to a different benefits provider.

“As soon as we heard about it, we did everything to fix it. As far as I know, it’s fixed now,” said Arnould.

Concerns with scabbing

The issue of scabbing has been front and centre since the strike began in June.

In just one month, the Sheraton was caught and fined by the B.C. Labour Board four times for using replacement workers and rebooking guests to the Marriott and Hilton, its non-union sister hotels located on the same block.

As for strikers who chose to cross the picket line, their photos were printed on posters, which were then stapled to trees on the premises.

In July, the Sheraton also filed a lawsuit against Unite Here Local 40, accusing union members and their supporters of engaging in “intimidating and harassing conduct towards Sheraton employees who choose to continue working during the strike, as they are lawfully entitled to do.”

The lawsuit detailed an incident in which picketers allegedly blocked an employee from driving home and even went to her house and knocked “loudly and incessantly” on her door.

Scabbing has also been critical in contract negotiations, with the hotel seeking to add an indemnity clause for those who have crossed the picket line and the union standing firmly against it.

“Scabs and everything are an internal matter of the union. It literally has nothing to do with the employer. It’s not like we’re trying to get people fired, we’re not trying to do anything absurd,” said Arnould.

“But when you’re all co-workers, and you’re part of a union, part of being a union is unity. And if you go against that unity, and that solidarity, it leads to some consequences.”

She told the News scabbing is not the biggest concern, and any clauses addressing scabbing should be considered at the very end of the negotiation process.

“At the end of the day, we all work together. I can’t say that we’re super concerned about the scabs, because everybody has … different things going on,” said Arnould.

However, Arnould thinks scabbing is part of the reason for the prolonged strike.

“If we were united together and didn’t have people go inside… the message would be stronger towards the company.”

Perry told the News the union checked with its lawyer and their tactics are legally sound to address the “detrimental” number of scabs.

Seeing further division among the workforce, Woo is concerned with how everyone will get along when the strike ends.

“I have said to the other people on the committee, ‘Really, there is nothing you can do. Why are you harassing (people who crossed the picket line)? We have to come back together when this strike is over and work with each other. Why are you causing this division?’” Woo recalled.

“When I first came on board at the Sheraton, the one thing I noticed with the staff is that everybody said good morning to each other and it was a warm greeting. And as you’re doing your business about the day, you chat with people from other departments and have fun,” Woo said.

“After this, I doubt it will be the same.”

Another Sheraton employee, who wished to remain anonymous out of concern for repercussions, said the union’s response to scabs also raised security concerns.

“There’s… so many people walking up and down that street, and now they have our full name, our photos on there, and they know where we work.

“It’s just there’s the safety aspect of it that no one seems to really care about,” they explained.

“It may be legal, but the humanity isn’t there? … It’s turned into this dirty fight within co-workers.”

‘Negative’ messages from hotel

In an email from the hotel sent to employees on Nov. 16, the hotel told employees they have two choices: either return to work or “stay on strike for the foreseeable future.”

“The hotel will not continue to make new and enhanced offers to a union that is clearly more interested in a strike than a settlement,” reads the email.

It explained the union has “essentially decided that their strike will continue indefinitely” by not voting on the hotel’s latest offer, “refusing to bargain and asking the mediator to leave the process.”

At the picket line, however, bargaining committee members Arnould and Perry are optimistic about morale.

“The people on the picket line right now that are still here with us are super big supporters. And they do not want to go back unless there’s something that is fair,” said Perry.

“And we’re not expecting them to give us everything we want. We just want something that’s fair.”

Donned in snow gear, the two told the News members are equipped with heaters and are stocking up on supplies to hunker down for winter. They added that weekly potlucks, along with help and donations from others, have brought the members closer together.

“I would say the morale is probably the highest it’s ever been at this point,” Arnould explained.

Both Arnould and Perry denied anyone has been “specifically excluded” from communications and said the bargaining committee has been communicating with members through emails and weekly in-person meetings at the picket line on Friday mornings.

“And if somebody from a certain department is not there, I’m sure somebody from their department will notify them or tell them what was discussed,” said Perry.

Arnould added communication from the hotel has been “very negative.”

“Basically anybody hired before 2020, management has been calling them… begging and pleading for them to come back and to stab their own co-workers in the back,” Perry added.

Woo, on the other hand, disagreed.

“I’ve never viewed the emails coming out from the hotel updating us on the progress… I’ve never viewed it as negative. If you look at the side-by-side comparisons (with union communications), they’re just telling it as it is,” he said.

Discontentment with employer dates back to COVID-19

Arnould and Perry told the News no offer has been put to a vote yet because “it’s not an acceptable contract at the moment.”

“Every single time we get a proposal, we go over it very carefully. We meet with the lawyer, we meet with the entire union membership, we meet with the union staff… It’s quite a process,” Arnould explained.

Issues include increases and decreases to the proposed raise the hotel allegedly made in each proposal, and its failure to include language negotiated and approved with the help of a mediator.

“It’s disappointing, too, because the Lalji family, they’re one of the wealthiest families in all of Canada. And they have multiple different companies. And they’re making millions of dollars across Canada, but they can’t pay their employees a living wage,” said Perry.

“It’s kind of ridiculous. We’re the ones who bring in their clients. We’re the ones who keep their clients healthy, happy and make them want to come back. But without us, they can’t really have a strong company.”

Amin, Mansoor and Shiraz Lalji are the owners of Larco Investments, which manages the Sheraton. In 2016, Business in Vancouver published a story linking the Lalji family to the Panama Papers.

In the story, Unite Here Local 40 raised concerns about the “ability of employers to shop tax jurisdictions,” which could “create an unfair advantage for certain employers and is unfair to the average Canadian taxpayer.”

Larco also rents office space to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) out of three buildings in Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal.

The employees feel disrespected by the hotel’s actions throughout the strike, Arnould and Perry explained, but added the sentiment could be traced further back to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our hotel was still open during COVID times, and they held functions and stuff like that. And the employees were not treated with respect,” Perry explained.

Going back to work and setting up for the future

Full-time strikers are currently committing 25 hours a week to picketing to qualify for strike pay. In response to the prolonged strike, the union has begun offering workshops for resume writing and interviewing.

“I no longer support this because I don’t know what we’re striking for,” said Woo.

“The union motto is ‘all for one, one for all.’ But it’s not ‘all for one, one for all.’ It’s ‘all for this particular group, and those outside the group? To heck with what’s going on in your life.’”

Woo has not been immune to the financial toll of the strike, although he has been able to catch up on special projects here and there.

“Slowly every month, I am falling behind on my bills.”

He is also concerned about the duration of the strike.

“Yes, we are in tough economic times, but at this particular time with the length of the strike, with all the money that’s lost and salaries, you will never make it up no matter what number you come up with the contract,” said Woo.

And his experience with the union has led him to believe it is “not interested in solving the contract quickly.”

“I asked, repeatedly, two questions – ‘What is the magic number that everyone is going to agree to?’ They won’t say anything,” said Woo.

“And, ‘At what point will the union and the committee members allow the full membership to vote on the contract?’ They are not answering that, again.”

He told the News he hopes the union will let members vote on the hotel’s counter-offers.

“I can tell you there are a lot of people who are eager to return back to work… And why should they have to put a resume up and go through an interview session when they already have jobs?” said Woo, explaining that those who vote “no” on the counter-offer can then seek jobs elsewhere.

Arnould and Perry, on the other hand, believe it’s important to stand their ground.

“We’re only in our 20s. So we have a long way of working to go. So I think… if we don’t have a resolution soon to all of this, I think our generation is very screwed in the future,” said Perry.

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