A union drive at Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto is gaining momentum. This is the result of the company’s insistence that its workers pay for the COVID-19 crisis with layoffs, pay cuts and hazardous workplace conditions.
Starting Wednesday afternoon, the union drive at the aquarium will be put to a vote, after months of organizing through the pandemic period.
The union drive has the company—part of billionaire Jim Pattison’s business empire—on edge. In just over two weeks, the company has sent staff three anti-union emails and barraged them with phone calls demanding they “vote no” to maintain “flexibility in the workplace.”
Since March, Ripley’s management has used the excuse of “flexibility” to lay-off staff, cut their pay and skimp on cleaning precautions while workplace COVID-19 infections rose.
We interviewed two worker-organizers, who are also members of Fightback. They told us the drive began in response to the employer’s abuse. And, they said, within the workplace, their colleagues are excited to get organized and stand up for themselves.
Ripley’s Aquarium worker “John”
Fightback: How long have you worked at the aquarium and what do you do there?
John: Coming up on seven years, in February or March. I’m a housekeeper there, I sweep the aquarium, change garbages, washrooms, sometimes help out with groundskeeping if there’s no one else available. I also train new staff, clean the glass, anything involving cleaning.
FB: What was working at Ripley’s like for you, in 2020?
J: Starting off, the bonuses that we usually get at the end of the year were a lot smaller. No one was very happy about our bonuses being a lot less.
When COVID-19 hit, the aquarium was one of the last attractions in Toronto to close, them and St. Lawrence Market. But before it closed, the attitude the aquarium took to COVID was, to be frank, very disgusting. My coworkers said they were told by management not to wear masks or gloves so as not to scare people.
More hand sanitizer isn’t enough.
Eventually, they were forced to close and a lot of us were laid off. My last day of work was March 15.
FB: What were things like after the reopening?
J: There were plenty of issues in the workplace before COVID. But things got worse when they reopened, at the end of June.
I was told, before I was supposed to come back, the company had cut people’s wages temporarily. If you were part time, it was down to minimum wage. If you were full time, it was a cut of around 10 percent.
They justified this by saying Jim Pattison took a 40 percent pay cut. Well, Jim Pattison is a billionaire, I think he can handle it. But most of my coworkers need that income to survive.
The company was very sketchy on social distancing and COVID precautions. They would skirt around capacity rules. When workers tested positive for COVID? They didn’t close down the aquarium.
FB: What about cleaning?
J: One of the biggest issues at the aquarium is it’s a closed space with a lot of high-touch surfaces. Even before COVID, if somebody got sick a bunch of other people in the workplace also got sick. It can be a real hotbed for disease.
But they still laid people off. Last time I checked the schedule list, there were fewer housekeepers to do cleaning than there were before.
FB: Tell me about the union drive.
J: Shortly after the aquarium closed, a coworker of mine approached me and brought up the subject of starting a union drive. We started talking about our issues at the aquarium.
For years, the aquarium was able to mistreat its workers with competitive jobs that allowed them to exploit people’s love of animals and replace any dissenting voices, if needed. But after the newest and worst abuses like pay cuts, mass layoffs, and their poor response to COVID-19, workers began to talk about these issues with each other.
We’ve come to the conclusion that, if we organize, we can stand up against whatever management tries to put us through.
Ripley’s Aquarium worker “Frank”
Fightback: How long have you worked at Ripley’s and what do you do?
Frank: I’ve been working at Ripley’s for about three years. Normally, when we have crowds, my job is to talk to people, answer questions and make sure they’re having a good experience.
FB: What was working for Ripley’s like in 2020?
F: I was laid off the week of March 13. Most people at the aquarium were laid off that week, except for essential fulltimers and people in charge of the animals. They had to stay. When Toronto eased down on its lockdown, in late June, I was called back—but with a temporary pay cut. From $15.30, down to minimum wage. I don’t think I ever received more than a $1 wage increase at any one time. But I was told everyone was taking a paycut to help the company stay afloat. It was constantly said that “We’re all in this together”. I heard that included Jim Pattison.
FB: Pattison became $1.7 billion richer between March and September 2020, I heard.
F: Yeah, I would think so, with all the grocery stores he owns.
FB: How diligent would you say the employer has been in protecting workers from COVID?
F: They had the money, but they did the bare minimum. We get a lot of people coming to the aquarium, everyday. That was a worry for my coworkers, that we might get the virus. Especially in the beginning since not every guest was willing to wear masks, and some put their mask on as they entered but would then remove their mask as they’re going through the aquarium.
They gave us face masks but only one department got face shields. The departments that sell to people got plexiglass shields in front of the counters, so any potential droplets would be prevented from reaching people, other areas where crowds could congregate did not. For example, the aquarium has “touch tanks” but there weren’t any plexiglass shields on the counter to provide protection to whoever was working there. In that area, with the “touch tanks”, everyone would help with cleaning the surfaces as often as possible. They handed out cleaning supplies to all of us, but it got a little difficult to clean because people would be lining up to get a chance to touch the fish. It’s really difficult to clean effectively. It isn’t always possible to clean the high-touch surfaces. I cleaned the high-touch surfaces every time I’d walk by, but I can’t speak for anyone else.
FB: How about the cleanliness of the aquarium, more-broadly?
F: They could have done better with overnight cleaning staff. We had them before the pandemic, but with the pandemic that’s not happening. They keep housekeepers in the morning and during the day. But after 10, there’s no more cleaning staff.
FB: Why should your coworkers support the union drive?
Even before the pandemic there was unfairness for workers. Being unionized would give us a fighting chance to make things better. If we don’t unionize, I don’t think things will get better.
The initiative to organize Ripley’s aquarium workers is an important struggle, particularly for workers trying to improve their conditions during the pandemic. At the end of the day, only the working class and its organizations will protect the workers from COVID-19. Left to their own initiatives, the bosses will continue to cut costs at the expense of health and safety.
That’s why Fightback enthusiastically supports the organizing drive and will continue to participate in this effort to protect workers’ lives. The broader labour movement must further mobilize in every workplace and every community to this end.
We encourage every worker to VOTE YES.
Victory to the aquarium workers.