From Awareness to Bargaining

Domestic violence against women and girls continues to be a problem in Canada, with one in three Canadian women over the age of 16 experiencing sexual assault in their lifetimes.

With incidence rates this high, chances are someone in your workplace is a domestic violence survivor, even if you don’t know about it. Recent research found that domestic violence often follows people to work, putting safety and jobs at risk.

Collective bargaining can play an important role in keeping people safe and supported at work. It also breaks the silence around a long-taboo issue.

Steelworkers Leading the Way

An anti-violence initiative developed by the USW National Women’s Committee in 2016 is raising awareness about domestic violence and producing tangible action by educating, engaging and mobilizing our members.

The Women’s Committee developed an anti-violence kit that USW activists are using for presentations to local and area councils and in workplaces with co-operative employers.

The anti-violence initiative includes a presentation available for download and resources include model contract language. Activists, union presidents and staff reps have in turn brought the initiative to the bargaining table. And it’s working.

Steelworkers are winning domestic violence leave provisions (DV leave) in collective agreements across the country including in several workplaces in B.C., Alberta and Ontario so far.

Achieving DV Leave in our Agreements

USW Local 2009 at the Kwantlen Public Interest Research Group (KPIRG) in Surrey, B.C., was the first USW unit to negotiate DV leave provisions with its 2016 agreement. Michelle Laurie was the USW staff rep at the table.

“One of our members had been to a conference where she learned about the domestic violence leave provisions and she proposed it for bargaining,” said Laurie.
The unit negotiated 12 weeks of paid leave and up to three months of unpaid leave.

Laurie has worked with three other Local 2009 units that have negotiated DV leave provisions – staff at MoveUP (COPE 388), staff at IATSE 891 and staff at the University of Victoria Students’ Society. All achieved paid DV leave, ranging from five days to six weeks, and a commitment to undertake workplace training and safety strategies.

Laurie introduces the concept at the bargaining table by noting that domestic violence is not a new issue.

“Society is saying we need to address it and how it affects employers – people’s ability to work, their productivity, safety in the workplace,” she said.

“We need to talk out loud about this. It’s real and there are real steps to deal with it,” said Laurie.

Violence Not Acceptable In Society

Lynne Descary’s motivation around DV leave is personal. She was raised in a home where domestic violence was present. Descary knows the situation women face when this occurs in their lives.

“Without domestic violence leave provisions, women are stuck in abusive homes,” said Descary, a USW staff representative in Ontario (District 6).

She acknowledges that domestic violence, while not spoken about, was ignored as an issue in society in the past. Not anymore.

Descary has successfully helped at least five bargaining units in Ontario obtain DV leave. Some include flexible hours; up to four weeks of paid leave and up to five months of unpaid leave without loss of benefits or seniority.

A legal clinic in Sudbury (USW Local 2020) had no hesitation accepting the contract language. Other employers have said no at first; but in many cases, they have come around.

“The committees are absolutely behind it,” said Descary.

She Persisted

Staff rep Darlene Jalbert was able to negotiate 10 days of paid leave for contracts at Your Credit Union locations in Ottawa and Cornwall (USW locals 8327 and 13292).

At first, the employer refused the provisions. But the employer came around as bargaining went on and as a result, the employer also added the same provisions for the management team.

Working with the bargaining team, Jalbert has also negotiated unpaid DV leave provisions for 35 members at another unit of Local 8327, Lanark County Interval House, a women’s shelter.

In bargaining, the teams have appealed to the compassion of the employer, noting that leave provisions are not special treatment. Once employers sympathize with the sentiment, teams persist.

“Put it in writing,” said Jalbert.

Media Coverage Spreads the Word

Two USW locals achieved domestic violence leave provisions within days of each other in B.C. and Alberta. Ray White, President of USW Local 1-207 in Edmonton, was able to achieve DV leave language at Rivercrest Care Centre, a long-term care facility in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.

Local media coverage of the achievement in Alberta has made it easier to present the language at other units of the local, even in predominantly male work environments.

Since the achievement at Rivercrest, the local has achieved DV provisions for workers at UNA (United Nurses of Alberta) and a letter of understanding at Shaw Pipe in Camrose, Alta.

Business rep Ivana Niblett showed the Women’s Committee anti-violence presentation at the bargaining table during negotiations with Rivercrest. That helped move an employer that pointed to existing employee assistance (EA) programs as sufficient, even though those programs don’t include time off. Niblett connected domestic violence to workplace health and safety and changed the conversation.

“The provisions may not get used. But if it saves one life, it’s worth it,” said Niblett.

Niblett and White have achieved the language in some form at three units so far. There are 20 agreements to bargain in 2017 and Niblett says the DV language will be at all the tables.

USW members in Alberta are proud to include the language in bargaining proposals.

The same is true in B.C., where Local 1-405’s Jeff Bromley achieved DV language for members of a unit at Trickle Creek Resort in Kimberley.

Veronica Tanner is the local’s Women’s Committee co-chair and serves on the District 3 and National Women’s Committees. Tanner presented the anti-violence initiative and model DV language to the local and it has been included in bargaining proposals since, even in male-dominated work environments.

For both Tanner and Niblett, having USW men on board and supportive has helped get the word out.

“As soon as we talk about it, people are receptive,” said Tanner.

Make it the Law

Momentum is building for making provisions for DV leave the law. Manitoba added domestic violence leave provisions to employment standards legislation in 2016. Private member’s bills are under consideration in Ontario and Saskatchewan. The federal government is looking at it, and Alberta is likely to consider it as part of its labour law review.

In Quebec, the provincial labour federation (FTQ) unanimously passed a resolution in November 2016 calling for paid DV leave in laws and collective agreements.

Part of USW’s Equality Work

Social stigma encourages those experiencing domestic violence to keep their situation secret. Many abusers encourage it too. By talking about the issue and bringing it to the bargaining table, unions are helping to end isolation, recognizing it as a societal problem and taking action by supporting those experiencing domestic violence.

The USW’s recent success negotiating domestic violence leave provisions is part of our equality work; part of our union’s work for women. Domestic violence is also a workplace health and safety issue. While these provisions on their own won’t end violence against women and girls, negotiating it helps break the silence while advancing and prioritizing women’s issues within our union.

Ask your USW staff rep, local or unit president for more information. You can also visit usw.ca/antiviolence.

This article appears in the June 2017 edition of USW@Work magazine.

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