U of T community radio sued for defamation by former labour union president

Unifor organizer Lisabeth Pimentel suing over allegations of racism, harassment

U of T community radio sued for defamation by former labour union president

U of T’s community radio station, CIUT 89.5 FM, has been caught in the crosshairs of a dispute involving organizers from two major labour unions in Toronto: Unifor and Unite Here. Lisabeth Pimentel, former President of Unite Here Local 75 and current organizer at Unifor Local 7575, is suing CIUT for allegedly allowing defamatory content about her to be aired on its radio shows.

CIUT is one of many defendants in a case that started as an internal conflict within Unite Here Local 75, which has now escalated into a multi-party defamation lawsuit with $500,000 in damages on the line.

Unite Here and Unifor both represent workers in a variety of industries, including hospitality, airport industries, and manufacturing.

The lawsuit

The case stems from Pimentel’s claims that a number of her former colleagues at Unite Here made comments on air alleging that her leadership was plagued with “racism, discrimination, harassment and bullying.”

According to the court filings, the majority of the alleged defamatory comments were made on social media, including Facebook and Twitter. However, a few of the statements identified in the statement of claim, which commenced the lawsuit, were made as a part of interviews broadcasted by CIUT and posted on the internet as podcasts.

The lawsuit claims that on January 30, 2018, a U of T graduate and member of Unite Here was a guest on CIUT radio show WeAreUofT, during which she spoke about how she was assaulted by another staff member. The claim also alleges that this guest claimed on the air that Pimentel informed the assailant that the guest was accusing him of assault, putting her “into an even more vulnerable position.”

The claim further states that the guest further remarked on air that Pimentel “was going to such lows to dismiss the voices… of racialized people who had built the union. To not have to listen to them, to not have to listen to them question her leadership. That is how far she was willing to go.”

Rik Hockley, former member of the executive board of Unite Here Local 75, was also a guest on The Taylor Report, a CIUT radio show. The lawsuit claims that on February 21, 2018, Hockley alleged that there was a racial divide between white people and people of colour within the office and that some of the rank-and-file organizers were “being treated like criminals.”

Because these allegedly defamatory comments were broadcasted by CIUT on its radio programs, Pimentel is also seeking damages from the station.

“I filed this lawsuit because facts matter,” wrote Pimentel in an email to The Varsity. “The allegations that CIUT published are false.”

“There is a dispute about the takeover of a Canadian local union of hospitality workers by its US-based parent union. Instead of addressing the merits of this dispute, the supporters of the US parent union turned this into an unwarranted personal attack on me, and CIUT allowed itself to be used as their pawn,” wrote Pimentel.

She added that the case can end much more quickly if CIUT would “apologize and admit that… it failed in the most elementary of journalistic ethics by failing to contact me before it participated in an attack on my integrity.”

Pimentel also added that her lawyers have been in contact with CIUT’s lawyers since the lawsuit was filed.

The defendants’ responses

In the months following Pimentel’s lawsuit, the defendants hired lawyers themselves and announced their intentions to defend.

All of the defendants except for CIUT were represented by the same law firm, Cavalluzzo LLP, and filed a joint statement of defence in which they asked that the “action be dismissed with costs.”

The statement of defence included background allegations of what the defendants called the “chaos, dysfunction and bitter internal conflict” within Unite Here during Pimentel’s tenure.

The defendants claim that no defamation had occured on the grounds that some of what Pimentel claimed never happened. In addition, the statement of defence claims that Pimentel had harmed her own reputation through her actions, and that they were allowed to say what they did because of qualified privilege.

Qualified privilege is one of the defences for defamation in the Canadian judicial system and can be used in cases where a person has a legal or moral duty to give a defamatory statement because it is in the public interest. A statement protected by qualified privilege cannot be made with malicious intent.

The defendants claim that “they had a duty and an interest in communicating their respective views on the internal conflict.”

CIUT has likewise engaged lawyers and announced their intention to defend.

Legal background

According to Brett Caraway, a UTM Assistant Professor teaching internet law, Pimentel may have a good chance of winning her case against CIUT. “In Canada, and in Ontario specifically, the need to protect the reputation of individuals actually gets more weight than freedom of expression,” Caraway told The Varsity.

Inferences aligned with this can be found in both the Ontario Libel and Slander Act as well as in case law. In the 1995 case of Hill v Church of Scientology of Toronto, the Supreme Court of Canada decided to reject the American “actual malice” standard from precedence that gives more protection to broadcasters from being sued for defamation. Actual malice establishes whether broadcasters knowingly or with negligent disregard publish something that was untrue and defamatory; it also places the burden of providing this proof on the plaintiff.

Caraway also pointed to the fact that radio programs are treated as traditional broadcasters with a publishing role in the eyes of the law. According to Caraway, radio programs have the ability to edit their content in some capacities, and by way of actively engaging and interviewing people, radio shows have a degree of control over what they disseminate.

This set of conditions — Ontario’s tough defamation laws and the classification of radio shows as broadcasters — is why Caraway believes that Pimentel could have a strong case.

Defamation lawsuits have been on the rise since the advent of the internet. Some attribute this to a lack of public understanding that social media users are legally liable for their posts and comments.

Even though Caraway said that he does not “want to live in a world where people are scared to call racism out.” He warned that “if you’re going to [call out racism or prejudicial behaviour], I wouldn’t be flippant about it. And I would definitely take into consideration that you may end up in a courtroom.”

The Varsity has reached out to the guest who appeared on the January 30 show and Hockley for comment, but has been unable to secure a response. CIUT declined to comment.

Disclosure: The Varsity has previously engaged the services of Cavaluzzo LLP.

Editor’s Note (September 10): The online version of this article has been updated to protect the identity of the guest who appeared on WeAreUofT’s January 30 show. The guest appeared on the show anonymously — a recognized practice for sources discussing their personal experiences with assault. While the guest’s name is included in the court filings and is a matter of public record, The Varsity respects the importance of protecting the identity of those who come forward with allegations of assault.

UNITE HERE hunger strikes during convocation

Two of seven hunger strikers are U of T cafeteria workers

UNITE HERE hunger strikes during convocation

As graduates celebrated convocation, hunger strikers camped out with tents on the southeast corner of King’s College Circle.

From June 9 to June 15, UNITE HERE Local 75, which represents food services workers on campus employed by Aramark, led a hunger strike to protest the university’s transition to internal food operations.

Inside Convocation Hall, the university handed out flyers to graduates and their families explaining that the commotion outside was due to the conflict over the transition of food service workers from a subcontract with Aramark to employment by the university itself, effective July 1.

Aramark workers have been in conflict with the university since January, when it was announced that the University of Toronto will take over food services at UTSG after its contract expires in July. Issues of guaranteed reemployment, the severity of probationary periods, the continuity of workplace seniority, and the debate over which union should represent the workers surround the transition.

Participating in the hunger strike

There were seven participants in the hunger strike, which included food services workers employed elsewhere and UNITE HERE international organizing director David Sanders, who said he would participate “halfway.”

Two of the participants were food services workers employed at U of T: Maria Goretti Frias, a campus cafeteria worker for over twenty years and Geneve Blackwood, who has worked as a cook at Sid’s Café for 15 years.

Frias told The Varsity before the strike that she was “very nervous, honestly very nervous. It’s going to affect our personal life.”

She continued, “We feel like we are mistreated. We are on probation, and they are taking our seniority over 30 years.”

“We’re trying to get through a point across campus,” said Blackwood. “They’re stripping us of everything and we don’t think that is right. They’re treating us as we’re new workers and we’ve been working for so long. It’s like we’re starting all over again for the same job we’ve been doing for years.”

The 250 Aramark workers have all been re-hired and they will represent the majority of the work force. There is a 90-day probationary period once they start employment under U of T; they will retain their original “date of hire” and receive a new “start date” under CUPE 3261.Protestors in support of UNITE HERE march on campus NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

Changing employers, conditions

Most hourly wages for workers employed by Aramark at the university range between $12.00 to $12.80. Under the university’s employment, wages will increase to $20.29 an hour. They will also receive U of T employee benefits, which include health plans, pension plans, vacation time, tuition waiver for spouses and children, and childcare assistance fund.

“CUPE also negotiated to ensure that the current Aramark employees are covered by the health plan as of day 1 of employment instead of the second month of employment as required by the Collective Agreement,” said CUPE 3261 president Allan James in an email to The Varsity.

“The most immediate issue is probation,” said Sanders. “During probation, you have zero job security, and for any reason at all, your employer can decide that you are not a good fit and therefore you are terminated. It is very normal for people to not make it through probation.”

On top of the concerns he expressed over the probation, Sanders claimed that some of the workers will not retain their jobs.

[pullquote-features]Most hourly wages for workers employed by Aramark at the university range between $12.00 to $12.80. Under the university’s employment, wages will increase to $20.29 an hour.[/pullquote-features]

“The university announced at the very beginning that they expected that only 85 per cent of the people would continue with the university, implying that 15 per cent won’t make it through probation,” he said.

James explained that CUPE 3261 is in negotiations with the university to waive the probationary period. “In my four years as president of CUPE Local 3261, I have not heard of an employee being let go during the probationary period,” he added.

Anne Macdonald, the director of ancillary services, told The Varsity that the university administration remain uncertain about the origin of the 85 per cent retention statistic; the university has issued statements to the contrary.

Macdonald clarified that during the first town hall meeting between the university and the workers, a university top chef mentioned that 85 per cent of the workers would experience no change to their current duties, but that 15 per cent would experience some changes to their job requirements. Most of these changes would centre around workers handling fresh and local food, which was not the case under Aramark’s contract.

“For sure, we did not say that 85 per cent of the staff would retain their jobs and 15 per cent would go,” Macdonald said.

James echoed this sentiment: “We have no idea where anyone is getting this idea. We have directly asked U of T about this rumour and they have categorically denied the idea of only 85% of the employees making it through the probationary period.”

[pullquote-default]“We fight hard for our workers,” Sanders said. “As far as I can tell, CUPE never fights to protect their members, beyond putting up an online petition. ”[/pullquote-default]

UNITE HERE and CUPE 3261

At UNITE HERE’s recent rallies, several protesters held signs that read ‘CUPE 3261: Workers should help workers’ and ‘CUPE 3261: Why are you letting U of T hurt us?’

“We fight hard for our workers,” Sanders said. “As far as I can tell, CUPE never fights to protect their members, beyond putting up an online petition. That does not count as fighting as hard as you can to protect the interests of these members.”

Macdonald acknowledged this tense relationship: “I don’t think [relations between the two unions have] been friendly discussions.”

James said, “CUPE Local 3261 has no fight with UNITE HERE Local 75.”

The University of Toronto has a legally-binding agreement with CUPE 3261 for its employees’ collective bargaining. According to Macdonald, if UNITE HERE successfully legally challenged this agreement, that union could assume responsibility for representing the university’s food service workers. Until then, CUPE 3261 will be the sole representative of food services workers on campus.

Re: Protest efforts continue against U of T’s takeover from Aramark

Re: Protest efforts continue against U of T’s takeover from Aramark

Miscommunication around U of T’s decision to contract back in hundreds of foodservice workers is generating a state of fear that should not exist in the face of the facts.

In a time when multi-national corporations continue to lead the charge in driving down wages and creating an economy based on precarious work, we rarely get good news stories and it is important that we recognize them when they happen.

In an effort to provide more local food on campus U of T chose to end its contract with multi-national foodservice provider Aramark and instead bring the work back in house. Much has been said about what this means for the workers and much has been wrong. I would like to set the record straight.

All of the current Aramark workers have been offered jobs without having to re-apply.

As of August 1st, when this transition will occur, these workers will be covered by a CUPE collective agreement already in place for all other foodservice workers directly employed by U of T.

Joining this agreement will result in a significant wage increase; immediate enrolment in the extended health benefit plan; enrolment in the defined benefit pension plan; increased vacation time; and a tuition waiver. These workers will also maintain their seniority within the Aramark list.

We recognize that this is not the perfect situation for Unite Here, which currently represents these workers. They are losing members. We too have been there as a result of mergers in other sectors and we originally lost these members when U of T contracted out the work. But, at the end of the day, what is best for the workers has to be the most important consideration.

We will always stand in solidarity with Unite Here. The work they do on behalf of their members is inspiring. Allowing circumstance to divide us only makes our movement weaker.

Fred Hahn is the President of CUPE Ontario.