HSA Hits the Picket Lines

The year 1975 brings transformation, as the no-strike clause is repealed.

When HSA’s first constitution was drafted in 1970, it included a no-strike clause that prevented members from respecting picket lines or forming their own. 

This was motivated by a perception that professionals shouldn’t strike, and patient care should always come first.

But the pronouncement had real consequences. 

During HSA’s first few years, other unions wouldn’t talk to HSA because they saw it as a “bosses’ union,” according to Sheila Begg, a social worker from Lion’s Gate Hospital and co-founder of HSA. Today the term is used to refer to employer-friendly unions that negotiate undemocratically and fail to represent the interests of members. While HSA was a democratic union from its onset, the no-strike clause impeded HSA’s ability to express solidarity with other workers’ struggles and negotiate in the interests of members. 

“We were completely on our own,” said Begg.  

In just four short years, the no-strike clause would be repealed at the HSA 1975 Convention held at the Empress Hotel in Victoria. 

“That was a hugely successful AGM,” said Begg. “People from all over the province came.” Approximately 460 members were in attendance, and long lines formed at the speaker’s mic to debate the motion to remove the clause. 

That year, HSA was in bargaining, and the employer was asking for concessions. 

 “The nurses had already bargained, and so had HEU,” explained Begg. HSA was asking for the same pay rates it had seen in previous agreements in relation to the other healthcare unions. 

“I think we needed a 20 per cent raise. That was what we were asking for. And the employer offered us a six per cent decrease. That got people’s attention,” said Begg. 

According to a February 1975 HSA newsletter, HSA was also trying to reconstruct the agreement to remove “management rights clauses” – language such as “as determined by the hospital.” The Employee Relations Council – an employer advisory body – had “made a mockery out of the collective bargaining process,” reads the bulletin. 

According to Begg, “The employer was basically saying, ‘You know, we can’t be nice guys forever. You have to fight for what you want. So, they really pushed us into being a proper union.”

Between June 19 and July 14, strike votes were held at 17 hospitals, and 88 per cent of members voted in favour of striking. Strike notice was served for 13 of these hospitals, and on July 15, the British Columbia Health Association offered a one-year wage increase of between 17.1 and 17.6 per cent on the first increment of each pay grade. A settlement was reached, and 91 per cent of members voted in favour of it. 

HSA sees First Strikes in 1975 and 1982

Eight paramedical employees at the Vancouver Neurological Centre (VNC) were the first members to strike in the history of the union, and it happened the same year HSA’s strike clause was removed. 

In 1975, members at VNC continued negotiations for their first collective agreement since unionizing with HSA in 1973. 

On November 1, 1975, a contract was signed following a five-day strike that delivered a wage increase of $245/month. The workers there did not fall under the HSA master agreement in hospitals, and did not achieve full wage and benefits parity through the action. However, “It is a far cry from the grossly unfair situation they were previously forced to endure,” reads a January 1976 bulletin. 

The paramedical staff at VNC would also earn the distinction of HSA’s second strike in the union’s history. On October 12, 1982, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, vocational counsellors, social workers, and speech pathologists at VNC voted overwhelmingly to go on strike when the employer tabled zero per cent wage increases. The 11 workers, who provided services to children with disabilities, had been without a pay increase for 15 months. And during this time, members in the HSA Master Agreement had outpaced workers in wages by 10 per cent. The strike lasted nine weeks, and won workers improved benefits and wage parity with the master agreement in the form of five wage increases over 15 months.  

The strike was hailed for its ability to garner extensive and positive media coverage, and overwhelming support from the parents of patients, who put pressure on the centre’s Board of Directors to settle. One parent, Bruce Wilson, was quoted in the Vancouver Sun saying, “We’re behind the therapists 100 per cent in their strike. I couldn’t believe it when I heard what they were paid. But without them, we feel kind of lost wondering whether we’re doing the right thing for the children.”

The first HSA Master Collective Agreement strike

It was a challenging year, with an unflinching employer, procedural roadblocks, and intervention from the province to squash job action through application of the Essential Services Disputes Act.

 The Health Labour Relations Association (HLRA), which represented the employer in bargaining, had tabled a bundle of concessions with negligible wage increases. In contrast, HSA members came to the table wanting to achieve wage parity with Alberta and Ontario – in effect a 14 per cent wage increase. Members were concerned about staff shortages, and wanted to see improvements to working conditions, including leave and on-call provisions.  

Negotiations were taking place under the restraints of the Compensation Stabilization Act, which capped annual public sector wage increases at eight to 14 per cent. 

At HSA’s 1986 convention, frustrated members unanimously called for strike votes. 

“I really got a sense at that convention that we turned a page to a new chapter,” said David Lowe, who served as HSA president from 1984-1986. He was 26 when he first entered the post.

“I’d like to think of it as a coming of age. We were thinking more like a union rather than an association of professionals,” he said. “And we were ready to throw everything at it.” 

In preceding years, members had witnessed disparities between their contract and what had been achieved by registered nurses. “We always considered ourselves on parity with an RN,” said Lowe.

“The gap was just getting wider, so we were ripe for some radical action.” 

He said members were likely still perturbed by earlier negotiations in 1980, when the HLRA refused the union’s request to reopen the HSA contract after the Nurses’ Union won higher wage increases. While the union had won an average increase of 28.8 per cent for members over 27 months, Lowe said the nurse were offered 40 per cent. “A lot of members were still stinging from that,” he said. 

“It wasn’t just, ‘we want a pay hike.’ It was ‘we want to be treated with respect and be treated fairly,’” said Lowe.

Strike votes were held from June 9-12, and members voted 83 per cent in favour of strike action. The union developed a plan to ensure essential service levels would be maintained during a strike, and strike notice was served on June 13. 

One hour before, the HLRA applied for mediation. “The timing was crucial. HLRA legally could not unilaterally apply for mediation after strike notice was served,” reads an article published in Vol. 7 No. 7 of The Report.

A mediator was appointed, temporarily curbing HSA’s ability to strike. Meanwhile, HLRA President Peter McAllister was calling on the Minister of Labour to issue a 90-day “cooling off period” – a measure made possible through the Essential Services Disputes Act that outlaws strike action.

One month later on July 13, with little progress seen in eight days of mediation, HSA requested that the mediation process terminate. HSA was then in a legal strike position, and the union continued its strike preparations.

On the morning of July 21, a half-hour strike was held by members in Prince George. That afternoon, the then-Social Credit government imposed a 90-day cooling off period.  

“The minute it started to become effective, there was cooling off. We got told we couldn’t be doing that,” said Lowe. 

HSA took the province to court, challenging the legality of the cooling-off period. But the effort proved unsuccessful. On August 25, the BC Supreme Court ruled against HSA.

A second strike vote was held – the first one had expired after 90 days – and this time 88 per cent of members voted in favour of job action. The union developed a strike strategy which included rolling strikes with professions deemed “nonessential.” 

“We had never been in that position before, learning who was essential and who wasn’t essential. And that was a learning curve for us to accept,” said Lowe. 

“Pharmacists had to go in for sure, and x-ray techs,” explained Lowe. “But myself, a remedial gymnast? Good God, was that essential? No, I don’t think so.” 

On Thanksgiving morning at 7 a.m., stewards at Trail, Prince George, Vernon, Royal Columbian, and Victoria General served 72-hour strike notice. This would put HSA in a legal strike position seven hours after the cooling-off period expired. 

But HSA leadership called off strike actions with news of a report from the Industrial Inquiry Commission (ICC) — a mediator tasked with producing non-binding recommendations.

Unsatisfied, members in Trail held a meeting and moved ahead with a picket line. Members walked out in Prince George, and Vernon members held a two-hour study session in the hospital cafeteria. 

That evening, HSA Council met and chose to continue with strike coordination. The next day, members from Vernon, Victoria General, and Royal Columbian formed picket lines. More rotating strikes were coordinated at additional sites across the province, with 1800 of HSA’s 5500 members involved in strike activities. Other hospital workers stood with HSA in solidarity.

According to Lowe, “HEU were always there, supportive of any sort of strike initiative, and wouldn’t cross our picket line.” However, the hospital RNs were deemed essential and continued to work. 

Throughout the dispute, members engaged in local actions to build pressure on the employer. Rallies were held and letter writing campaigns targeting hospital board members, administrators, and local newspapers were organized.  

After a week of rotating strikes, HSA halted actions on October 23 with the release of the ICC report, which members voted on and widely rejected. 

A new offer was made by the HLRA, and a tentative settlement was reached on November 11 on the eve of planned strikes. Ratification votes were held across the province from December 1 to 3, with members voting 86 per cent in favour of the new contract won by the strike. 

Lowe considered the contract a success. “It wasn’t terribly much compared to what we were getting back then, but we achieved a lot in the language of the contract. We saw that as a victory.”

“At the end of the day, it was a lesson in how you really had to enter into this adversarial position just to keep the status quo and make some gains.”

1987: Members join one-day general strike against Bill 19

On June 1, 1987, 300,000 BC workers participated in a province-wide general strike in opposition to Bill 19, the Industrial Relations Reform Act

The act, imposed by Social Credit Premier Bill Vander Zalm, was a massive attack on collective bargaining rights and the right to strike.  

Many HSA members across the province participated in the one-day walkout, which shut down schools, public transit, government offices, ferry services, liquor stores, sawmills, and garbage collection.

The combative bill rewrote the BC Labour Code and replaced the Labour Relations Board with the Industrial Relations Council (IRC). It appointed Ed Peck as the council’s commissioner, who was given sweeping powers to prohibit strikes, define picketing powers, and roll back wages agreed to in arbitration processes. Compulsory settlements could be imposed on both private and public sector unions.

Unions across the province were furious. The BC Federation of Labour (BC Fed) planned a ten-point program to respond to the bill. A central strategy was boycott of the legislation, including non-compliance with back-to-work orders and boycott of the council’s adjudication and dispute resolution divisions. Unions across BC, including HSA, organized member-wide votes on the adoption of the BC Fed’s 10-point program. HSA members voted narrowly to support it. 

In August 1988, 11 HSA members manufacturing orthotics in Victoria defied the IRC and launched a four-day illegal strike in the fight for a fair contract. While the employer sought a ten per cent rollback of wages, workers – who were then making between $7-$11 per hour – secured a tentative agreement with annual five per cent increases. The same members had won their first contract in 1986 after joining HSA in 1985. 

That summer, the BC Supreme Court ruled that it would not back the IRC – a major victory for the boycott movement. In effect, IRC rulings could not be registered with the court, and court resources, including fines and policing, could not be accessed to enforce IRC rulings. 

The Socred party would lose the next BC general election in 1991, and the legislation was withdrawn by the NDP in 1992. 

A climate of restraint in the late 1990s pushes HSA RPNs, community social service workers, and paramedical staff into strikes

The late 1990s was a period of public sector austerity under NDP premier Glen Clark. 

When public sector unions went to the bargaining table in 1998, they were confronted by a government-mandated zero, zero, and two per cent annual wage freeze. When factoring in inflation, public sector workers were being asked to accept wage decreases, and employers refused to budge. 

“Even though the NDP were in power, it was a time of tightness and restraint,” explained then-HSA President Cindy Stewart. “They were trying to get all of the public sector unions on the same page, which made it difficult to deal with some of the nuanced needs in some of the individual collective agreements.”

The first to settle were HSA’s 289 members in community health, when a tentative agreement was reached August 3, 1998. Included in the deal were pay increases for HSA members matching pay received by other community health workers in the 1996-1998 collective agreement. 

The first HSA members to strike in 1998 were HSA’s 730 registered psychiatric nurses (RPNs). At the bargaining table, the nursing shortage was tied to deteriorating working conditions, which was further tied to worsening patient care. Meanwhile, the employer was demanding significant concessions. After six months of talks, strike votes were held, and the Nurses’ Bargaining Association received a strike mandate. Rotating strikes began on November 27, 1998 at five hospitals. 

As the nurses were beginning strike action, HSA-led bargaining for the Paramedical Master Agreement was progressing slowly. The Health Employers’ Association of BC (HEABC) was looking to gut the classification system in place, while HSA members wanted improvements to on-call pay, job security protections, and wages. By November 23, paramedical employees had given the Paramedical Professional Bargaining Association a strike mandate with 78 per cent of members voting in favour, paving the way for the second province-wide strike to take place in the history of the paramedical master agreement. 

Strike notice was served in early January 1999. On January 11, HSA members began rotating job actions, but never erected hard picket lines. Other bargaining units in hospitals were not asked to respect picket lines and were not affected by the job actions, according to Stewart. “That made the labour movement quite uncomfortable,” she said.

Rallies were held to draw attention to the work of paramedical professionals. “Professional days” were organized, whereby workers would take job action in groups. There were clinical days, rehabilitation days, and diagnostic days. 

“We did rallies. We took members somewhere else. But the hospital was on essential service levels for HSA work,” explained Stewart. She said hospitals had to gear down the services provided. 

HSA members focused on raising awareness about the value of health science professionals in the healthcare system. Information was distributed outside hospitals. 

“That job action in ’99 was when we really stepped out of the shadows in terms of defining our own personality and our brand out there in the public eye,” said Stewart. 

Mediator Brian Foley was appointed to draft settlement recommendations for both the paramedical professionals and the nurses. HSA encouraged members from both bargaining groups to approve the Foley reports. 

While the strikes failed to overturn the zero, zero and two per cent wage mandate, each bargaining group achieved gains in other areas. Nurses won a modest increase to on-call pay, $50 million to create new nursing positions, and improved health and welfare benefits. 

Perhaps most importantly, paramedical professionals protected their classification system. They won modest improvements to on-call pay, and money to create a new long-term disability plan through the Health Benefits Trust. 

Stewart remembers advocating vehemently for the increase in on-call pay, which initially wasn’t included in the mediator’s report. While reviewing the recommendations with Foley on the 19th floor of a downtown hotel near Stanley Park, Stewart told the mediator, “‘I cannot take this back to our members. I might as well jump off that balcony because I will not be HSA president next week unless we have relief on this.” 

While the job actions didn’t win a groundbreaking contract, it held off major concessions. “You never think it was enough, but it was a breakthrough,” said Stewart.

She said the strike taught HSA about the strength of its members. “Nobody should underestimate them.”

“They know how to stand up for themselves.” 

Community Social Service Workers win wage parity with historic 11-week strike

As HSA’s registered psychiatric nurses and paramedical professionals finally reached settlements, 300 of the union’s 800 members in community social services were gearing up for what would be the first province-wide strike in the sector. 

The successful 11-week strike launched by 10,000 workers would set the foundations needed to achieve wage parity with workers in the province’s health sector. 

Community social service (CSS) workers were facing significantly lower wages and inferior benefits compared to the same or similar professions in hospitals. Despite this, the employer was demanding concessions and trying to strip workers of rights they had won in previous agreements.

Workers went on strike to demand that the employer address longstanding inequities in the sector.  

With the help of mediator Don Munroe, a settlement was reached on May 28, 1999. 

According to HSA Membership Services Coordinator for Classifications Derek Wong, the agreement established a pay floor for a large segment of work in the sector at no less than $14 per hour. He said it “sounds horrible today, but at the time was a huge victory and confirmed that the classification system would be implemented to bring fairness across the sector.” 

Before the strike, “rates varied from pretty close to health care rates to minimum wage. The range was that big,” said Wong. 

Unfortunately, workers would see some of the other gains made lost down the line under BC Liberal Premier Gordan Campbell and his government’s Bill 29 in 2002. But the classification system stayed in place. 

Wong, who was a child and youth counsellor and Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) member at the time of the strike, knew first-hand the motivations behind hitting the picket lines.

“Social services workers recognized that they were at the bottom rung of the ladder in terms of public sector wages,” said Wong. “And these are workers who are out there supporting and advocating for clients and residents – people who in society by and large are marginalized.”

“Workers by that point were saying, ‘Look, we need our services in this province to be sustainable.’”

The strike was the first time that four unions in community social services – HSA, the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU), the Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU) and CUPE – came together to co-ordinate bargaining. They demanded that a provincial collective agreement be established, consolidating hundreds of collective agreements, in order to level-up wages and working conditions in the sector. 

HSA member Sheila Robertson, a transition house counsellor at South Okanagan Women in Need Society (SOWINS), sat on the HSA bargaining committee during the negotiations. She remembers when her contract was negotiated separately for her worksite. Then the table grew.

“These changes happened very rapidly,” she recounted. “HSA really had to work hard to bring what we had already been talking about forward, to make sure that it would become part of the contract,” said Robertson. During the strike, HSA represented workers from eight facilities. 

When negotiations broke down in December 1998, the bargaining team went to members for a strike vote. Community social service workers delivered a decisive 95 per cent strike mandate. 

“The decision to go on strike was very difficult because in many of those situations there were no provisions for strike pay. With over 200 collective agreements and 13 unions, everybody was in a very different boat,” said Wong. 

“It was a pretty courageous and bold thing to do, yet we had that kind of solidarity across the province,” said Wong. Thousands of workers were united and ready to act.

Robertson felt strongly about the need for job action. “I really felt that we needed to strike. This was something that needed to be done to bring awareness to the general population about what we do, and the importance of our jobs,” she said. 

Robertson, whose sister works as an occupational therapist in Interior Health, saw major disparities between her work and her sister’s in terms of wages, benefits, and pensions. She believes the disparities were in part due to the fact that women traditionally work in community social services. 

“I think we were standing up for women. We were standing up for the work we do,” she said.

“As workers speaking on behalf of and trying to teach empowerment to marginalized people, it only made sense that we finally came together as a group of workers and started empowering and advocating for ourselves,” said Wong.

Robertson had never been on strike before. The unions had chosen to keep the essential services delivered to vulnerable women and children at transition houses running and the strike strategy excluded transition houses from picket activity.

But members at those sites joined other members on other picket lines.

“There would be a schedule of when your times were, and so we went and picketed with another organization,” she recounted. She said it was a positive experience.

“I don’t remember any hostility from people who drove by us. The people who supported us would honk or wave.” 

“And I really enjoyed talking to the people from other worksites and hearing why they were there, and feeling the support of us all getting together,” said Robertson. 

It was this solidarity that led to a historic agreement. In addition to putting CSS workers on track to achieving wage parity with health care workers, it delivered greater employment security, a group RRSP plan jointly funded by the employee and employer, and new contract protections through successorship rights.

HSA used the success as a launch pad for new organizing initiatives for non-unionized workers in the sector.  

Building off victories of the past: low-wage redress in 2021

According to Wong, the most recent contract won by CSS members, in effect from April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2022, secured significant funds for low-wage redress in the sector that builds off of decades of work. Wong considers the recent low-wage redress program a resounding success connected profoundly to past efforts to organize for change in the sector. 

“In this collective agreement we have achieved significant increases, and progressed further than we ever have before,” said Wong. “We’re moving towards the pay parity that we’ve been seeking with health care jobs since the sector came together in the late 90s and fought.” 

“And we’re very close to fully achieving it now, in large part to this collective agreement’s low wage redress program’s success,” he said. “That work started in 1999 and continues.”

He said that while every collective agreement has achieved another step closer to pay equity with the health sector, the 2019-2022 agreement is the largest step the sector has taken in low-wage redress. In this agreement, $60 million was allocated to the redress program. With the pay improvements that took effect on April 1, 2021, the gap for all classifications in the sector has narrowed significantly, and for some classifications, the wage gap has closed completely. 

“The whole sector and the unions in it have done an amazing job of bringing to the forefront and to the government’s attention the need for this kind of work to be recognized and respected in terms of equal pay in this province,” said Wong. 

Wong has been involved in the design of the CSS classification system since its inception and worked on the joint wage redress committee alongside the employer. He said the classifications project was “an amazingly collaborative process” that centered the principle of fairness.

“In recent years so much of the need in CSS has been driven by recruitment and retention issues,” he explained. “The employers were just as interested as the union in making sure the kind of fairness that the union was seeking was going to be put into place.”

He said all classifications received significant increases during the life of the 2019-2022 contract.

“When you combine the two per cent general wage increases that have happened in every year of the collective agreement with the low-wage increases, the range of total compensation increases for HSA members over the life of the collective agreement ranges from 16.2 per cent to 39.1 per cent,” he said. 

2001: HSA members defy law to defend against two-tiered wage contract

On May 16, 2001, the BC Liberals swung into a majority government under Gordon Campbell, defeating the NDP after its two-term run in government. The next 16 years would be fraught with austerity under the BC Liberals, and in just one year, it became clear that the BC Liberals would brazenly remove collective bargaining rights, eliminate critical services, and privatize parts of the health care system. 

2001 was a bargaining year for the paramedical professionals, the nurses, and HSA members in community health. The Health Employers’ Association of BC (HEABC) expressed little interest in reaching a collective agreement with the Paramedical Professionals’ Bargaining Association (PPBA) before the May 16 provincial election. 

Frustrated by a lack of movement around proposals to improve wages, on-call premiums, health benefits, and special leaves, HSA’s health science professional members voted 90 per cent in favour of strike action. Rolling strikes were organized from May 18 to June 18. Meanwhile, BC’s nurses were carrying out an overtime ban initiated in mid-April to pressure movement in their negotiations. 

Health science professionals organized rallies across BC. More than 700 members in Victoria protested on the lawn of the Legislature. Hundreds of HSA members marched from Prince George Hospital to city hall, and thousands rallied in downtown Vancouver. Protests unfurled in Kelowna and Smithers, and the smaller communities of Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, and Williams Lake planned other local actions. 

Members staged rotating service withdrawals across BC. And many member job actions took on a creative and kind spirit. According to Vol. 22 No. 3 of The Report, “Thousands of members engaged in creative and interesting job action, including donating blood, registering to become bone marrow donors, producing information leaflets on individual professions, delivering food for the food bank, leafleting in malls, volunteering with community agencies and writing to MLAs and local papers about the issues health science professionals face every day on the job.”

In response, the Campbell government legislated HSA members back to work through Bill 2, passed in the legislature on June 20. It was the Campbell government’s first major attack on union members. Nurses were ordered to end their overtime ban. 

Just as in 1986, a so-called “cooling off period” was imposed, set to expire August 31. PPBA and HEABC were instructed to return to the bargaining table. HEABC was offering a two-tiered wage proposal that valued some professions over others. 

HSA members had a choice to either accept the employer’s offer, or defy the legislation. It was unlikely that members would be able to relaunch the strike after August 31. HSA President Cindy Stewart told The Report in 2001, “The government didn’t introduce legislation just to delay a strike. It wants a deal, and it wants us to capitulate. That’s why they legislated our strength away.” 

After extensive consultation with the membership, including a survey that determined that 80 per cent of members would participate in illegal job action, HSA’s Board of Directors voted July 18 to take strike action in defiance of the legislation. On July 23 and 24, members again hit the picket lines to fight for a fair contact. The employer’s divide-and-conquer bargaining strategy was met with solidarity.

The Labour Relations Board ordered HSA to cease and desist its strike activities. HEABC went to the Supreme Court of BC to find HSA in contempt of court. The Board of Directors called off the strike, but the actions would go down in HSA history as a moment when union members took the courageous step to defy an unjust law to win a just contract. 

On August 7, the BC Liberals introduced legislation that imposed the employer’s offer on paramedical professionals. A contract was also imposed on nurses, including 700 registered psychiatric nurses in HSA. The moves trampled on collective bargaining rights, and would be a taste of more to come. 

In 2002, the BC Liberals imposed Bill 29, which gutted health care and community social service (CSS) contracts, including the hard-fought 1999 contract for CSS workers that won major steps towards wage parity. The bill also handed over the management of important health care services to private corporations – a major hit to the public health care system. 

Unions across the public sector were under serious attack. They fought back through the courts, and a significant victory was won in 2007 when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that sections of Bill 29 violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Some remedies were ordered. But to this day, public sector unions feel the impact of the Campbell government’s repressive assault on collective bargaining rights.