By John Carlisle
Fifty-eight workers for self-storage chain Public Storage in Ontario, Canada, have banded together to join the province's United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. The Ontario Labour Relations Board unofficially approved the action at an Oct. 12 meeting, and now an official certificate for the union is pending. The newly unionized workers include facility managers, assistant managers, relief managers and maintenance staff.
"In late September, our employees expressed their wish to be represented by a union," wrote Troy McLellan, senior vice president and chief operations officer of Public Storage Canada, in an e-mail. "We respect and abide by their decision. At this time, we have had discussions with the UFCW through the [Ontario Labour Relations Board] regarding the make-up of the collective bargaining unit. We have concluded that select properties within Ontario will become part of the collective bargaining unit and others will not. No discussions or negotiations on the terms of the collective bargaining agreement have commenced. At this time, we have not received anything from the labor union with respect to their concerns or requests or that of our employees. We will endeavor to work with the representatives of the UFCW to ensure the most efficient and beneficial outcome for everyone involved. This will include educating the UFCW on the nuances of our industry and how it differs from the more typically unionized environment."
Public Storage has 66 onsite workers at 22 stores in seven municipalities in Ontario, mostly in the Greater Toronto area. But because labor board regulations dictate strictly how votes for unionization can be ratified, eight workers in three different municipalities are currently not part of the collective group, said Bryan Neath, regional director for UFCW Ontario.
Neath added getting these eight members into the union will be the first priority of negotiating with Public Storage executives. If an agreement can't be reached, these workers will have to wait until next year to reapply to be included in the union. The unit of 58 workers has been assigned to Local UFCW 175, which will make the first outreach to Public Storage corporate leaders to draft an agreement. Neath doesn't anticipate much time passing before the first negotiation because law requires the company to meet with the union, though he emphasizes crafting brand-new agreements and reaching consensus for the first time can be especially challenging.
By Neath's account, Public Storage executives have been fairly cooperative so far. "Management, to this point, has not given us an anti-union feel," he said. "They're not Wal-Mart."
Three Public Storage workers approached the union initially to investigate joining, Neath said, adding the time from first contact to unionization has been very quick. He described the workers as "very well-prepared" and said they cited scheduling (number of days off and amount of hours worked) and health and safety as their top issues. Neath said the union can provide the workers with better access to legal services, as most storage workers earn modest wages, and hiring attorneys for wrongful termination complaints is very costly.
"Not that we protect everybody or can protect everybody, but at least you have someone who'll fight for you in case you lose your job for reasons we feel are unjust," Neath said. The union will also help in negotiating other typical issues, such as wage, health benefits, and retirement or pension accounts.
McLellan, noting self-storage operations work in a "competitive environment," said, "We will continue to treat our employees fairly. The organization of our employees does not impact our primary focus of operating our business as the storage provider of choice for our shareholders, employees and customers. We will continue to conduct business as usual."
The UFCW is the largest private-sector union in Canada and represents retail workers at big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Target, Neath said. Though self-storage employees don't typically align with retail, Public Storage workers likely approached the UFCW because of its publicity, reputation and relatively large amount of resources.
According to its website, Public Storage has 52 locations across Canada. As a private company, which is separate from the U.S.-based Public Storage Inc., the operator is organized financially as PS Canada Company LLC. The company was the publicly traded Public Storage Canadian Properties until Sept. 8, 2010.
In the United States, Public Storage-branded stores are part of the publicly traded Public Storage, which operates more than 2,200 unique and diverse company-owned locations in the United States and Europe, totaling more than 135 million net rentable square feet of real estate.