Shelter operator Alpha House engaged in blatant 'union busting' says CUPE

Management at Alpha House—which operates shelters in Calgary and Lethbridge for people with a broad range of physical, mental health, and substance abuse challenges—is trying to stop its staff from unionizing. And according to one employee, they’ve crossed the line into illegal practices: management recently fired a staff member who was part of the union drive.

On June 3, when the City of Calgary and Calgary Police Service announced the recipients of funds for their joint $16-million program to enhance alternative crisis response models, Alpha House was by far the single largest recipient with $2,893,553.

Alpha House employee Dominique Damian-Wallace says the workers filed their union application to join the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 4731 on March 26 after collecting digital union cards from at least 20 percent of the workforce, a necessary pre-condition of a union vote. “Up until that point, it had been quiet,” Damian-Wallace said. “We were pretty excited about it. It’s been a tough year for everyone (and) we were looking for more support.” 

But submitting the paperwork broke that quiet. Now management knew, and according to Damian-Wallace, they retaliated by firing one of Damian-Wallace’s co-organizers—George McFaul—without cause, which she characterizes as a blatant act of intimidation by management.  “He had no write-ups before then, a clear record, and was really well-known to be very good with clients,” she says. “He was terminated and walked out in front of everyone.” 

Immediately after his dismissal, management put up a notice at all 10 Calgary locations that a union drive was underway. The workers’ supervisor urged them to vote against membership, threatening that their wages, working conditions and job security couldn’t be guaranteed if they proceeded with unionization. “All we’re doing is seeking support, because we as frontline workers are dealing with the COVID pandemic, like everyone else is, but we’re also dealing with an ongoing opioid crisis and housing crisis,” Damian-Wallace says. “That’s all we’ve ever wanted.” 

Alpha House denies the worker was fired due to his union organizing activities and told 660 News that they want workers “to make a fair and informed choice” on unionization. 

“The decision to end our working relationship with that employee was made well ahead of the certification and was unrelated to the potential unionization of our employees,” management wrote in a statement. “Alpha House prides itself on being a respectful and inclusive work environment and we would not engage in any practices to prevent our employees from considering their options and exercising their right to vote in the union certification.”

Damian-Wallace doesn’t buy it. “It was intended to send a chilling effect,” she says, emphasizing that they didn’t give a valid reason for McFaul’s dismissal. “Management should’ve had a neutral and hands-off approach, and instead their first reaction to finding out about this union drive was to fire someone very publicly.” 

Unfair Labour Practices Complaint

Under Canadian labour law it is illegal to fire employees for trying to organize. CUPE filed an Unfair Labour Practices complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board against Alpha House on April 1.

According to the complaint, Damian-Wallace began speaking to her colleagues about unionizing in September 2020 and reached out to CUPE on Dec. 18 about the possibility of representing them. 

In January, McFaul, who had previously served as a shop steward with the British Columbia Government Employees Union, had begun looking with several colleagues at the possibility of organizing their workplace, reaching out to various unions to affiliate with, including CUPE, which is how he discovered Damian-Wallace’s parallel drive.  

On Jan. 21, he asked Damian-Wallace about signing a union card and asked to join the organizing committee.

Organizing members handed out leaflets, as well as CUPE lanyards, masks and buttons at the workplace on March 26, the day of the certification application submission. That afternoon, the ALRB sent notification of the drive to the local and employer, and just hours later HR sent out a notice to employees announcing a retroactive bonus payment for the past six months. 

On March 28, McFaul, who worked Sunday to Thursday, came to work for his regular Sunday shift, where he distributed CUPE materials to other workers. Later that afternoon, he was brought into the manager’s office for a meeting with HR and told he was being terminated immediately because he was a “bad fit” for the organization. 

When he probed further as to why he was being fired, pointing out that he received a positive performance review in December, management told McFaul he had refused four meetings with his team lead and hadn’t signed a series of documents. McFaul denies he refused any meetings, but says he recalls some documents he hadn’t yet gotten around to signing. 

Even if these reasons are legitimate, the complaint questions why they were done on a Sunday shift, when HR doesn’t typically work, and not Thursday or Monday, suggesting that this decision was made as a result of his distributing CUPE lanyards and broader involvement in the union drive, which management had been aware of since at least the Friday. . 

“Termination of a key union organizer is in itself threatening and intimidating to other employees. It sends the message to other employees that if they support the union like Mr. McFaul their employment may also be terminated,” the complaint, which calls for McFaul’s full reinstatement, says. 

As of writing, it’s unclear when this ALRB hearing, or an investigation, will take place. 

McFaul's Firing could backfire against Alpha House

CUPE Alberta spokesperson Lou Arab said McFaul’s firing is a blatant example of union busting. 

Arab says the certification vote, which requires more than 50 per cent approval, has already taken place, but its counting awaits the results of another ALRB hearing, which occurred in mid-May, on whether team leads are included in the bargaining unit.

Even if they lose the certification vote, Arab says a favourable ruling in McFaul’s case could result in unionization. “In the worst cases, the legal precedents are that if an employer poisons the well, then the union can’t get a fair break, so they give certification to the union. The union then has a chance over a period of a couple of years to negotiate a collective agreement.”

Arab said it’s unfortunate that an organization dedicated to helping the vulnerable would throw its employees under the bus.

“It’s disappointing that people who work in those situations can’t be allowed to make a decision about their own union status without interference and intimidation from their employer,” he said. “Whether that employer is Alpha House or Amazon, it’s still union busting.”