CUPE members are on strike in Vancouver. Yesterday was Day 24 of the strike in which inside and outside City government workers, from librarians to garbage collectors, are off the job. But workers at Carnegie Center’s low cost cafeteria on the Downtown Eastside, Canada’s poorest neighbourhood, are on the job because Labour Relations has labeled the cafeteria an essential service. This is partly because people volunteer at Carnegie to earn 80 cents an hour in vouchers which they trade for food in the cafeteria. People can also use money to buy meals in the cafeteria.
And you don’t need much money. Yesterday CUPE members, along with volunteers, produced a turkey dinner and here’s what you got for three dollars:
- Turkey: everybody got a mix of white and brown meat.
- A scoop of steamed red cabbage.
- A scoop of steamed carrots, not overcooked, still a bit crunchy, with a few green peas tossed in.
- Brown rice, short grain. Carnegie switched to brown rice last year after years of serving white rice.
- A large slice of homemade brown bread with margarine.
- Chocolate chips and banana cake, with chocolate icing. Carnegie makes their desserts and muffins low in sugar. There is a diabetes epidemic in this neighbourhood, so if you want to skip the cake, they’ll let you chose an apple, banana, or orange for dessert instead.
The City-funded cafeteria in Canada's most used community center wasn’t as busy last evening as usual. That could be because the strike has closed services which draw a steady stream of people into the building: the small Vancouver Public library just off the lobby, and the public access computers in the basement and on the 3rd floor. But even with a slower evening than usual, the sixty meals — that’s the number prepared seven evenings a week – would probably sell out. Other food is sold at the cafeteria too: soup for 75 cents, sandwiches, low-sugar blueberry muffins, and even homemade granola for a buck a bowl with soy drink or milk to pour over it.
And CUPE hasn’t cut off the coffee. Despite the strike, you can still get a good cup of coffee in the basement of Carnegie. There is a volunteer on duty – a few volunteers are still allowed to work in the building, but only in food service — selling coffee down there. It’s Guatemalan, freshly ground everyday. Sixty cents for a small takeout, with real cream. There’s a television blaring down there too, but not much else going on during the strike.
When Phil, a security guard, walked through the cafeteria as people ate their turkey, a volunteer asked him about the strike. The City doesn’t want to bargain, Phil responded. The City, though, accuses CUPE of not wanting to bargain. CUPE is up against the current Non-Partisan Association City Council which is less union-friendly than the previous Committee of Progressive Electors City Council which CUPE helped bring to power. “It looks like it could be a long strike,” Phil said.
For another CUPE strike-related story, see CUPE Boss Asked to Settle With Secretary