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500 Atira workers unionize to improve the safety of residents, workers

It comes weeks after an independent audit into the society was released
Two people died following a fire on April 11, 2022 at the Winters Hotel in Vancouver. Atira Women’s Resource Society is among the parties targeted by a proposed class action lawsuit by former residents of the rooming house. Some 500 workers at the society have now joined BCGEU, a move that promises to improve safety for residents and workers. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

A successful union drive among workers of B.C.’s largest housing contractor promises to improve the safety of residents and workers at its facilities.

More than 500 Atira Women’s Resource Society workers officially joined B.C. General Employees’ Union May 29. The society operates 2,969 units of housing for women, children, and all gender individuals in the Lower Mainland

It comes weeks after an independent audit into the society was released and the former CEO Janice Abbot resigned. Atira has been making provincial headlines for months – even years – over safety concerns.

RELATED: Province, Atira look to restoring public confidence after CEO Janice Abbott resigns

Kadidja Youssouf, a women’s support worker with the society, said frontline workers know how to make Atira better for workers and for residents.

“By unionizing, we now have the collective power to speak out, and for our ideas to be heard.

BCGEU president Stephanie Smith welcomed the new members, who will now be able to push Atira to address safety concerns, short staffing and other living and working conditions.

RELATED: Officials working to find housing for 144 people displaced by fire in Vancouver

RELATED: Survivor of fatal Downtown Eastside hotel fire files proposed class-action lawsuit

Former residents of the Winters Hotel in Vancouver recently filed a proposed class action lawsuit against the hotel itself, the municipality and Atira Women’s Resource Society, Atira Development Society and Atira Property Management for allegedly breaching their duty of care to tenants following a fire that killed two individuals in April 2022.

While fire officials had deemed that fire accidental, they had issued a notice of violation over the hotel’s sprinkler system three days earlier.

Concerns about safety at Atira facilities coexist with concerns about its culture following the release of an independent audit in May.

RELATED: Minister’s wife serves on board of non-profit organization at centre of BC Housing controversy

RELATED: Atira challenges accuracy of conflict-of-interest investigation into BC Housing

RELATED: Ex-CEO of BC Housing called out for conflict of interest involving wife: report

The government-ordered report found multiple conflicts of interest between the former head of the society —Abbott, who resigned on May 15 — and her husband, Shayne Ramsay, former head of BC Housing, the Crown corporation responsible for developing, managing and administering subsidized housing across the province with a budget of $2 billion.

The report released on May 8 found that Ramsay, who left BC Housing in the summer of 2022, had violated conflict-of-interest rules on “numerous” occasions when he headed the organization to the direct benefit of Atira without directly benefiting himself or Abbott.

Abbott headed Atira for more than 30 years, while Ramsay headed BC Housing for 22 years. Their relationship started in 2010.

Government is currently reviewing Atira’s books with additional changes to its leadership and oversight structure underway.

Because the society receives a majority of its funding from government, the newly unionized workers will be eligible to join one of the B.C. government’s sector agreements.

BCGEU is arguing that the workers should join their supportive housing counterparts under the Health Employers Association of British Columbia.

BCGEU now includes more than 4,000 supportive housing workers along with frontline workers at Raincity Housing and Support Society and Lookout Housing and Health Society.

BCGEU has more than 85,000 members representing a wide variety of sectors.

RELATED: B.C. housing non-profit at heart of controversy names interim CEO

The union drive comes against the backdrop of leadership changes at Atira, now headed by Catherine Roome as interim CEO.

Roome, who will assume the post July 1, said she is looking forward to working closely with Atira’s board of directors, staff, tenants and community members as well as the provincial government and BC Housing.

“I am eager to help Atira conduct the hard but necessary work to reset and renew while ensuring the organization’s important work — serving and protecting women, children and gender diverse people and providing much-needed housing — continues,” she said.


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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