A Story of Courage in the Face of Intimidation

Transition house counsellor Sheila Robertson reflects on a 1996 union drive that led to four workers being fired – then rehired – and one arbitrarily forced on leave.

Sheila Robertson has been working as a transition house counsellor for 27 years at the South Okanagan Women in Need Society (SOWINS) in Penticton. 

In 1996, Robertson and her co-workers experienced one of the most challenging union drives facing prospective HSA members in that decade. 

When workers tried to join a union, the executive director launched an intense union-busting campaign that culminated in four workers being dismissed – and later reinstated.

When staff at the transition house decided that they wanted union protections, they contacted a few unions, including HSA, to learn more about their options for representation. As this was happening, the employer began reprimanding employees.

Workers ultimately chose to unionize with HSA, and on April 1, 1996, HSA filed for certification of 15 workers in Penticton and Princeton.

Late that night, after 9:30 p.m., the society’s executive director visited three employees at their homes and informed them that they were dismissed. In one instance, an employee was dismissed in front of her child. An additional employee was fired afterwards, and another was arbitrarily placed on leave. 

HSA responded quickly, and filed an unfair labour practice complaint with the Labour Relations Board, charging the society with contravening the Labour Code and engaging in intimidation and coercion. Within three days of filing, a hearing was held in Penticton and a settlement was reached the same evening with the help of a mediator. 

The employees were reinstated with full back pay and punitive documentation was removed from the five employees’ files. Equitable shift scheduling was guaranteed. One employee accepted a cash settlement and resigned.

Despite the hardship, Robinson said she is incredibly glad that she joined HSA. “I went and listened to the information when it was presented, because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. And I just see tremendous benefits in so many ways since 1996.”

The workers’ experience with intimidation is a sobering reminder of how difficult it can be for workers to come together and organize for their rights. But it is also a beautiful story of how in the face of hardship, the courage of workers can lead to meaningful transformations, including a fair and safe workplace for all. 

A lot has changed in the organization since 1996. Approximately 80 workers at SOWINS now have good, unionized employment, with union representation in HSA. And 25 years later, Robertson is able to look back on the experience and understand the deep value of belonging to a union. 

She wasn’t very interested in unions when her workplace first unionized. “It wasn’t something that had been necessarily on my mind as much as my colleagues’ minds at the time we certified,” she said. 

But the experience motivated her to get involved in the union. She stepped up to serve as Chief Steward of the chapter from 1996 until 2000, and sat on the HSA bargaining committee during contract negotiations for community social services in 1999. Now Robertson is an occupational health and safety steward and an active union member. “I really could see the importance of belonging to a union after this experience and I wanted to be part of making a better workplace for all of us,” said Robertson. 

In the following interview, Robertson reflects on what happened at her worksite when workers organized a union. It has been edited for length and clarity. 

Do you remember some of the reasons why your co-workers wanted to unionize in 1996?  

There were a lot of worries in the workplace about the executive director and management. We were seeing what we thought were unfair work practices towards the workers, and the thought was that we would have some safety with a union. That was what drove those calls to be made.

What happened after HSA filed for certification with the Labour Relations Board? 

The executive director and the manager or supervisor of the transition house decided to come to several of our homes and terminate our positions. I was one of those people. They came to my home in the evening and handed me a letter. 

We were able get on the phone and advise other workers that this was happening. They showed up at another worker’s home but she didn’t answer the phone or the door. It was very traumatic. 

Of course, the employer didn’t say that the union was why they were terminating us. They said it was because of something that we had done at work. It was awful. I was a single mother and my job was very important to me. 

Then HSA and their lawyers got involved. The five of us got our jobs back. 

For folks who are interested in joining a union, what would you say to them if they’re experiencing fear?

Because of my experience, I can understand why they might feel fearful. I can understand that they’re going to wonder what will happen if their employer finds out. But the union has really protected us over these many years. 

I’ve seen the contract help provide a fair workplace, where there’s understanding of how staff are hired, and what would happen if there’s a grievance. It really lays out a foundation. We have workers’ rights, representation, and access to HSA – to people who understand the contract. If there’s a problem, the contract helps move things forward. So, I certainly would do it again. I think the outcome was positive. 

If you had a friend who wanted to organize their workplace, what insights would you share with them? What is the best way for workers to provide support to each other? 

The majority of us felt strongly that we needed some protection. So that united us. And we were very supportive of each other going forward, and we got information. 

We had certain people in my workplace who knew more about unions, and people who could educate us. I didn’t know what it meant to belong to a union. I didn’t know what unions did or how they worked. I had heard about them but it didn’t have any real meaning in my life. 

One thing that I really appreciated over time was the work that has been done to increase wages and provide pensions and extended benefits. When I started, my pay was very, very low – just above minimum wage. On the bigger stage there are people who are actively working to ensure that we receive fair compensation for the work we do.

And a wonderful change that I saw was the arrival of the Municipal Pension Plan. It is one of the things I’m most proud of. Often, I tell the girls at work, you make this a career and know that you will leave with a really decent pension. If they started when the pension plan was in place, they’re going to get a fair pension at the end. And that’s going to help them not slip into poverty after they retire.  

At your workplace, how have gains made by workers benefited clients? 

We work with very vulnerable people, and many of us are there because we really want to make a difference or we really care about the people that come to us for services. We have a big heart for it. 

In many ways, when workers win, for example, gains in occupational health and safety, that’s going to have a spillover effect onto the clients in terms of improving the environment that they enter into. And when these places can attract strong staff, it’s also going to improve the services that can be provided.

Did you see the organization become strengthened as a whole after unionization? 

It took a while for all of us workers to really understand what a contract is and how that works, and what we can do if we feel like we’re being treated unfairly. But I definitely feel that over time, we became a much more professional-looking organization. We started at the grassroots, with big hearts, and people who really cared about the social injustice that’s happening. We wanted to help make a difference. 

There’s a real professionalism that came. And I really do think that it helps the people we serve. They see that. They see that what makes it safe for me is what makes it safe for them. 

I’ll give you an example. When we moved to our new transition house, it didn’t have some safety features. And as workers, we wanted to add those safety features, which we have done. But they also keep someone who is fleeing abuse safe.

Cameras, making sure that there are two entries before you can get into the building – all those things help the client feel secure in case her partner shows up. And I hear all the time in my work that they feel safe.