Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 4963 filed a 48-hour notice of strike action on the afternoon of December 16 and plans to strike on the morning of December 21 if an agreement is not reached by then.
The move follows a strike vote on December 7, in which the 38 residential counsellor and vocational instructor members of CUPE Local 4963 at the Queens Association for Supported Living (QASL) voted overwhelmingly - 92 per cent - in favour of strike action.
QASL, which is formally named the Queens Adult Service Centre, offers a variety of residential options for individuals requiring a supportive living environment, such as community homes, and independent living support for individuals living on their own.
Vocational services offer a range of programs for adults with a variety of disabilities.
QASL has a total of 70 employees who look after 15 residents in QASL community homes and there are 40 clients involved in QASL vocational services.
If a strike does occur, all community homes operated by QASL will continue under the Nova Scotia Essential Health and Community Services Act.
Since vocational services are not covered under the Act, in the event of a labour disruption QASL's vocational and life skills training centre – Penny Lane Woodworking and Enterprises - will close.
A rally for striking workers has been planned for December 21, if an agreement has not been ratified. Union members will meet in Liverpool, at the corner of Middleton Road and Bristol, and march to the Department of Community Service on Henry Hensey Drive.
The local union members have been without a contract since 2015 and negotiations have been ongoing, but talks have come to a stalemate over pension equity between the residential counsellors and vocational instructors.
Carrie Mosher, a QASL residential counsellor and a member of the union bargaining team, described the issue as "the only sticking point.
"We have always had two different pensions with the same contribution. In 2017, the vocational instructors pension plan was changed to another one at which time there was a slight, additional contribution.
"In 2019, that contribution increased significantly and it puts us into two different pension plans, with two different significant changes in contributions."
According to a CUPE media release, QASL failed to inform and subsequently negotiate with the union prior to making the changes.
However, Treena Dexter, QASL's executive director, told LighthouseNOW in an email that, despite the union's claims, the vocational employees "were fully informed of the transfer from their previous defined benefit pension plan to the current plan. The decision to transfer did not fall on the employer, it was to be determined based on the outcome of a required vote by plan members in which QASL vocational employees participated."
Dexter advised on social media that QASL's board of directors acknowledges "the tremendous impact this may have on individuals and families supported by QASL and will continue to work for a reasonable solution to the dispute. The employer is committed to maintaining the quality of care and service required for the residents supported by QASL and to return to providing vocational services should these services be disrupted."
Dexter added, however, that while the employees are valued QASL receives its funding from the provincial Department of Community Services and must operate within its funding guidelines and fiscal mandate.
Mark Furey, Nova Scotia's minister of labour relations, acknowledged in an email to LighthouseNOW that QASL delivers an important service to the local community.
"We value the contributions employees make and we don't want to see that disrupted. The pension differences between these employee groups are long-standing and have always been recognized and accepted.
"Queens Association for Supportive Living is in line with agreements with employers and other unions in the sector with similar pension plans," said the minister.
According to Mosher, the union members simply want to get equal contributions for all of the union members.
"We are not looking for past lost contributions which are high in numbers, we are looking to move forward from this day on," she said.