NANAIMO — Members of Nanaimo's largest union boycotted the City's annual Christmas Lunch, a move their president says is in reaction to a work environment rife with "fear and vitriol."
CUPE Local 401 president Blaine Gurrie said nearly every one of their more than 500 members joined the "member-driven" movement not to attend the Thursday lunch. He said it's designed to send a message to senior management and Council that "things aren't going very well."
"The morale level is at an all-time low. Staff would like somebody to help them. They don't feel like they can go to anybody. They can't go to human resources, they can't report to senior management, they're not allowed to speak to Council without getting in trouble. There's nowhere for them to turn," Gurrie told NanaimoNewsNOW.
Gurrie said it's the strongest message he's seen staff send in his more than 20 years with the City. He said staff are working in an environment where they feel afraid to bring forward legitimate complaints because "they think they're going to be targeted, they think they're going to be in trouble."
"If our membership is afraid to speak to us, what are other employees who have no representation going through?"
The termination of management staff played a large role in fostering that fear, Gurrie said. City data showed at least five managers were let go this year, compared to none between 2006 and 2016.
"When they see their managers being terminated and they don't understand why because they think their managers are doing a fine job, I've heard that many times, it tends to send shock waves through departments. It leaves an organizational vacuum across the top where people with knowledge, experience and expertise are now gone and it falls to our members to try to pick up the pieces and it's a lot of pressure and stress on them."
Gurrie said Council "plays the biggest role in this," because they choose the city manager. He said the relationship between unions and employers is determined by the tone which is set.
"In this case it's going kind of sour and it's because our members are saying to the union 'we're not happy in this workplace right now, we need help.' We're hoping this Council gets this message."
The commentary is not directed at all members of Council, nor any specific group, Gurrie said. He said the political landscape in Nanaimo is so divisive right now "even good people are having a hard time finding their voice."
"We need some active intervention from council to look at the processes going on right now and to actually listen to what the employees have to say, without fear. They need to be able to speak without being afraid."
He said the union will "have to look at" some of the support they have given candidates in the past. In the 2014 municipal election, councillors Bill Bestwick, Diane Brennan and Bill Yoachim received financial support from CUPE Local 401 and CUPE BC.
Gurrie said WorkSafeBC complaints haven't been filed because such a small percentage of the claims get approved. He added staff have had no ability to complain about senior management because they're required to go to human resources and that department is out-ranked by the staff being complained about.
NanaimoNewsNOW spoke to a longtime City employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The employee pointed to an incident where specific complaints were filed against chief administrative officer Tracy Samra but nothing was done. Samra then allegedly asked for one-on-one meetings with the complainants, a move the employee said was received as a bullying tactic.
"It keeps this whole feeling of unease and embarrassment. I've never been embarrassed to say I work for the City and I am now and a lot of people feel that way," the employee said.
They said staff feel constantly uneasy at work, especially around senior management and specific members of Council, and staff feel they were unfairly blamed for creating a toxic work environment.
An Oct. 4 City news release said an initiative was underway to "transform the existing toxic culture" following years of conflict over "successive regimes."
Gurrie said he wouldn't call the situation inherited, noting there have always been disagreements in the past, however their members have never been afraid to come forward with issues.
"Good and bad across the board with past regimes but regardless there was a level of respect between management and staff that was decent, it wasn't vitriolic and fear based. Unfortunately we seem to descending into that now," Gurrie said.
CUPE Local 401 and the City are currently working under a collective agreement which expired a year ago and a new round of bargaining has not begun. Gurrie said Thursday's boycott had nothing to do with that, noting they will bargain in good faith with whoever is at the table.
Gurrie said they're calling for an internal review where all employees, unionized and management, are interviewed anonymously about how they feel about the leadership of the City.
When presented with a list of Gurrie's comments, CAO Samra responded with a statement saying the City was disappointed with the turn of events at an otherwise positive and festive event.
"The City of Nanaimo senior management team values all of its employees, and prefers that problems be addressed without resorting to collective actions such as this...This administration has appreciated the collaborative way we’ve worked with CUPE Local 401 these past two years.
"Until CUPE Local 401 raises its concerns directly with the City, I am not in a position to provide any specific comments," the statement said.
All councillors were emailed for comment.
Coun. Brennan said it appears the City's employees were trying to make a "hard hitting comment."
"We will need to examine the situation and try to mend our relationship," she said.
Mayor Bill McKay said he supports the union's right to protest.
All of the uneaten food from the lunch was donated by the City to the Salvation Army New Hope Centre and the Nanaimo 7-10 Club.
On Twitter: @domabassi
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