London long-term care home workers seethe as contract talks stall

“All the nursing homes in the province like to call these guys ‘heroes’ and they ignore them.”

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A sign outside the Chelsey Park long-term care home in London praises its staff for their work in the pandemic.

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But those same workers are now locked in a labor dispute with the employer, staging protest pickets because the company will not return to the bargaining table to negotiate a new collective agreement.

The 267 members of Unifor Local 302 who work in Chelsey Park, located on Oxford Street West, do not have the right to strike under provincial law. But they adopted a rotating picket line as they urged landlord Southbridge Care Homes in Cambridge to return to the bargaining table.

“The morale is not good, people are angry. All the care homes in the province like to call these guys “heroes” and ignore them. It’s disgusting,” said Lisa Tucker, president of Unifor Local 302. “They have to step in for these guys.

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The company and the union have been negotiating for over a year, starting in March 2021, and were last at the table in September. February bargaining dates have been canceled by the employer.

“We want them to come back to the table and negotiate a fair deal for these workers,” Tucker said. “The only thing we can do now is organize information pickets and try to raise awareness.”

His concerns resonated with Don Pollock, chairman of London-St. Thomas Chapter of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons. He thinks nursing homes need to add more staff to improve resident care and worker conditions.

“The pandemic has ripped the bandage off of what things are in these homes. The staff is underestimated and underpaid. It’s a real challenge to retain staff,” Pollock said.

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Workers want better pay — they’re making about $22 an hour now — and contract language to improve working conditions. The union is also concerned about job security.

“Everything is going up, everything but our salaries,” Tucker said. “Staff have been working the whole pandemic. They are essential. They take care of the elderly. A sign in front thanks them for their work. Well, if they want to say “thank you”, go back to the table and negotiate a collective agreement.

The union has filed for arbitration, but it could take a year to get a hearing date and Tucker called on the company to negotiate now to avoid a third party intervening in the talks.

“Southbridge has always been committed to bargain collective agreements in good faith and to bargain in accordance with industry standards,” said Jody Abbott, director of resident care at Chelsey.

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“Southbridge will support the board’s final decision when it is received.”

Southbridge is building a new 160-bed long-term care home on Wharncliffe Road South which it plans to open this summer. When it opens, Southbridge will transfer 160 residents to the new facility from Chelsey Park, leaving around 80 in Chelsey.

Southbridge officials plan to renovate the Chelsey Park home after Southbridge London opens. But the union says the projected workforces they have seen suggest there will be eight fewer staff working in the two houses combined than the number currently working in the Oxford Street house alone.

When asked by The Free Press if he planned to cut eight positions, Southbridge officials did not respond.

Although Southbridge owns the business, it is managed by Extendicare. The union represents personal support workers, licensed practical nurses, dietary aides, cooks, custodial staff, housekeeping and laundry workers.

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