Sunday, September 9, 2007

CUPE Strike: Lucy's Labor Pains

The Carnegie Learning Center is in a tough spot during the current strike of Canadian Union of Public Employees in Vancouver. It is on the third floor of the Carnegie Center, a building operated by CUPE members who have been on strike for the past two months. But the two teachers in the Learning Center, Lucy Alderson and Betsy Alkenbrack, aren’t CUPE members. The two get their pay cheques from Capilano College in North Vancouver, which has jointly run the Learning Center since Carnegie gave the Vancouver School Board the boot a decade ago.

Like most teachers, Alderson was supposed to return to work after Labour Day. Instead, she is planning a trip to Labour Relations to ask them to declare the Learning Center an essential service.

Alderson has done her homework. She invited a bunch of the Center's learners and volunteers to a meeting Thursday at Carnegie to discuss strategy for the request to Labor Relations. With Betsy Alkenbrack doing the writing, they created a "draft" press release. Calling themselves, "Common Sense People of the Downtown Eastside", they included in their press release a list of things that are essential about the Learning Center. But anybody on the Downtown Eastside with an ounce of common sense can see that the list is far from accurate:

- help with resumes and job searches
- help with negotiating government services, including online welfare applications
- access to health information
- high school upgrading
- ESL and computer training for seniors
- courses such as First Nations Journeys, Success Skills for Community Work and ESL literacy
- access to computers for information, training and services

The truth is that kitty corner from Carnegie at Main & Hastings is Pathways, an Industry Canada organization providing roughly 15 public access computers that are specially set up to help with resumes and job searches. If there are empty computers, staff turn a blind eye to people dropping in to use them for other purposes such as checking e-mail. And they have extra services specifically targeting native people.

Many people using Carnegie computers didn't have a clue about what went on at Pathways until the strike. But once they were forced off the Carnegie computers, they discovered it. One guy told the friend who had brought him that he preferred it over Carnegie, "Nobody yells at you here." A woman had earlier said that she found Pathways "more relaxed" than Carnegie. You can get help using computers from staff at Pathways too.

Anybody shut out of the Carnegie Learning Center during the strike also has the option of using the University of British Columbia Learning Exchange, a drop-in center just 2 1/2 blocks from Carnegie, on Main St. near Powell. At the Exchange you can get a chintzy half an hour on a computer. During the strike, there is often a bit of a wait for a computer and if you go after 4:00 p.m., you can forget about getting on to one. If you need basic computer help, they will give it to you. They also offer ESL.

Some users of the Carnegie Learning Center have been showing up at "Free Geek", near Main & 2nd Ave. Free Geek is an organization run by a group of "never say Microsoft" twenty-somethings with a government grant and a storefront. They provide a room full of public-access, on-line, computers on the Linux operating system.

When it comes to high school upgrading, the Carnegie Learning Center is not the only game in town. The Eastside Learning Center at Powell and Columbia St. operated by the Vancouver School Board provides high school upgrading. It's not a drop-in center like Carnegie though. They have a huge banner in the window prompting people walking by to "Register Now."

Lifeskills, an organization run by the Portland Society in the old Cordova St. Clinic building by Oppenheimer Park, has posters up around the Downtown Eastside begging for students. They help people develop computer and other skills. "Anybody can walk in there," says a Downtown Eastside resident.

When it comes to support for native people on the Downtown Eastside, there is a plethora of organizations. Just walk up Hastings St. east of Carnegie and you'll pass several. In addition, the welfare offices at Powell and Main have plenty of programs for native people looking for upgrading and jobs. In fact, they tell people that if you're non-native, they don't have much in the way of courses, but if you're native there are lots.

The list of 'essential' services provided by the Carnegie Learning Center is summed up on the press release with a blatant lie: “For most residents, this is the only place they have access to computers. This is a serious human rights violation, since most government information and access to services is only available on line.”

There is no doubt that early in the CUPE strike, Carnegie patrons missed the computers they had been accustomed to having easy access to at Carnegie. But as the strike enters its third month, many people have discovered other places to go.

In the press release it was stated that the closing of the Carnegie Learning Center is causing “pain and destruction”. If that’s the case, why did Alderson at times lock the doors of the Learning Center or evacuate everyone, always with the same excuse, “A volunteer didn’t show up.” Alderson would sit in the Learning Center by herself while low income people who wanted access to computers peered through the windows at her, resulting in her being described on the Downtown Eastside Enquirer as a “sea otter at the aquarium”. When bloggers began reporting these too frequent closures -- which were also occurring on Saturdays when it was the responsibility of CUPE members to keep the Center open -- Alderson and Alkenbrack participated in a witch hunt for the blogger, interrogating a volunteer about who could be blogging. Then Alderson personally barred a homeless man, Bill Simpson, for suspected blogging.

The barring of Simpson, which was later expanded to include the entire building by City managers under pressure from CUPE members, was criticized by Carnegie Board member Sophia Friegang as a “human rights” issue. Friegang got nowhere and resigned over the issue.

But Freigang's criticism didn't prevent the promotion of the Learning Center in the press release as a place where human rights are respected. The press release began with the headline, "LABOUR DISPUTE PUTS LEARNING AND HUMAN RIGHTS ON HOLD", and ended with an appeal to both sides to resolve the strike so that the Learning Center can operate: “Lives and human rights are at stake.”