In Defense of the Public Good

When HSA deepened its connections to the labour movement in the 1980s, it also refined its political voice.

When HSA deepened its connections to the labour movement in the 1980s, it also refined its political voice. 

HSA worked alongside other labour unions to unearth the connections between the public interest and the interests of working people, and this enhanced the union’s ability to advocate on behalf of members. Through relationship building and coalition building with like-minded organizations, HSA strengthened its reach as an organization.

But the power of the union, ultimately, has rested with its members. And HSA is now 22,000 members strong. 

As HSA activist and physiotherapist Rachel Tutte said, “People in unions working together around the things that they believe in can have a substantial impact on both the public and union members themselves.” She has seen awareness of this impact grow over the course of her involvement with HSA. 

Tutte’s track record of HSA activism is extensive. She was a chief steward and member-at-large in the 1990s. She has since been a labour council delegate, an occupational health and safety steward, a Constituency Liaison, an HSA representative to the BC Health Coalition board, and a member of the union’s Board of Directors.

“I’ve seen HSA become better at seeing the bigger picture of what people working together with a common interest can achieve.”

Tutte appreciates the influence members have when sharing their expertise regarding the systems that they work in. This has proven particularly valuable in the work to promote and defend quality public services. 

While just a snapshot of HSA’s activities, the following examples provide some insight into how HSA has made important contributions for members and the broader community through social and political action over the course of its history.

1987: HSA’s Royal Inland Hospital chapter becomes the first to join a district labour council (DLC)

The Royal Inland Hospital chapter was the first HSA chapter to join a labour council. Its 155 members affiliated with the Kamloops and District Labour Council (KDLC) in 1987 after HSA’s Executive Council approved the request. At the time, dues to join the KDLC was 20 cents per member annually. 

Royal Inland Hospital Radiological Technologist Fanny Monk attended KDLC meetings for a year alongside Region 8 Councillor Shirley Dorais before the chapter officially affiliated. Monk, who was a steward at the time, saw the importance of participating more in the labour movement after attending Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) workshops at Harrison Hot Springs. She saw value in how the labour council pooled resources and provided mutual support to fellow delegates’ unions. 

After the chapter reported that many concrete benefits resulted from their affiliation, HSA Executive Council encouraged other HSA chapters to affiliate with their local labour councils. 

“HSA members are impressed by the wide variety of professions and lifestyles represented in the labour movement, by the free exchange of information, and the spirit of sisterhood and cooperation,” Monk told the HSA Executive Council in 1988, according to an article in Vol. 9 No. 9 of The Report magazine.

 In the article, Dorais and Monk reported that “education forums and promotion of public control over health care are two important contributions of the district labour council,” noting that the council worked to highlight the negative effects of health care privatization. 

During this time period, the KDLC carried out a number of notable actions, including co-ordinating education materials in schools, organizing inter-union strike support, supporting International Women’s Day, and supporting the election of a candidate to a local credit union, according to The Report article.

1988: HSA affiliates with the BC Federation of Labour (BCFED)

At HSA’s annual convention in 1987, Monk successfully moved a motion that mandated the HSA Executive Council to investigate affiliation with the BCFED. The following convention, members voted to join the federation. 

For Monk, who was an active HSA member from the 1980s until 2011, said this marked an important point in HSA’s political maturation. She saw immediate benefits from affiliation, including improved networking and communication with other unions. She said through its affiliation, HSA members were able to participate in excellent courses at Harrison Hot Springs.

“The trainings were really valuable,” she said. “We made contacts with the other unions and they were helpful when we needed to get information or advice. And we could talk to each other about how government decisions may or may not be going, and how they could be influenced.” 

“When we had job action, we had support from the other unions. And we supported them.”

2002: HSA officially joins the BC Health Coalition (BCHC)

HSA has been a longstanding member of the BC Health Coalition, a respected group of organizations and individuals – including unions, seniors’ groups, health care workers, health policy experts, and people with disabilities – who work together to advocate for a quality, well-funded, and well-designed public health care system in BC. 

Tutte, who served as a BCHC co-chair from 2009-2014, believes that HSA’s incredible support of the BCHC has been the organization’s most important partnership. 

“I think that’s where there’s been the big impact,” she said.

Over the years, HSA’s elected representatives have participated in the coalition’s work. HSA has provided staff support and funding to the Coalition, which Tutte said has been used to educate the public and politicians about the importance of a robust public healthcare system and public services more broadly.  

Tutte highlighted the role HSA played in supporting the coalition’s work defending against the Brian Day court case, which threatened to introduce US-style profit-driven healthcare through a legal challenge against the BC Medicare Protection Act.

“I think that was huge,” said Tutte. “HSA put so many resources towards that, and I think it made a difference in the outcome of the court case, and in the politicians’ ability to support public health care as best as they can.”

The BC Health Coalition organized grassroots opposition to the decade-long legal challenge, and as an intervenor in the court case, presented evidence to support the protection of public healthcare. In a major victory last year, BC Supreme Court Justice Steeves ruled against Dr. Brian Day, President and CEO of Cambie Surgeries Corporation.

HSA also worked to involved other unions in supporting the work of the coaltion. In 2014, HSA President Val Avery presented a cheque to the BCHC for $20,000 on behalf of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE). The funds were used to support the BCHC’s legal defense in the case.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the BCHC is advocating vigorously for the creation of national standards to improve long-term care. It’s calling for increased staffing levels, minimum care standards for residents, and increased transparency around the use of public funds. Furthermore, the coalition is calling for new reforms that would significantly curtail privatization in the sector. 

The BCHC has been a longstanding advocate for a strong, public long-term care system, and was quick to criticize the dramatic reduction in publicly-funded long-term care beds announced by the BC Liberal government under Premier Campbell in 2002. The same year, the BCHC ramped up its political activism and officially became a non-profit. HSA joined as an organizational member following years of previous involvement in its work. 

2003: HSA launches its Constituency Liaison (CL) program

HSA’s CL program was established in 2003 to build the capacity of HSA members to lobby their elected members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) on important issues.  

Developed by HSA staff member Rebecca Maurer, who led the union’s communications and government relations work, the program started with ten constituencies, focusing on regions where there was interest from members, combined with consideration for politicians’ portfolios. The program equipped members to build relationships with their MLAs and “feel comfortable having the knowledge to go and meet with someone,” said Tutte.

She worked closely with HSA communications officer Carol Riviere to bring the program to fruition. “We thought it was important for us to raise the profile of what HSA members do to support bargaining,” she said, “but also to educate the public and politicians about the importance of HSA members within the system – that it’s just not doctors and nurses.”

“One of the strategies we came up with was to get meetings with the MLAs,” said Tutte. “We found it was easier to get meetings when you were an actual voter in that region.”

HSA members “don’t just like to go and toot their own horns. They like to have solid information and solid research behind them,” said Tutte. “And sometimes – say if you are working with some of the MLAs with parties that would not traditionally support all aspects of public healthcare – some of that hard research and hard facts are what they appreciate.” 

HSA provided the research, training, and support to prepare members for their lobbying meetings.

After an initial run, the program quickly expanded. 

“It was very successful. We just ran from there. And now we try to have a Constituency Liaison for every single constituency in the province.” 

The CL program today

Burnaby Hospital Pharmacist Jing-Yi Ng has been a CL since 2017, and has been active in a variety of HSA’s political action campaigns for over a decade. 

She grew up in a progressive riding in Burnaby, and from a young age, valued fair access to public services like education and healthcare. 

“I wanted to stand up for things that were just – things that I believed in. I wanted to make sure that things were fair for others,” she said. 

She joined the CL program when she moved to the Burnaby-Deer Lake riding. Anne Kang had recently been elected as the MLA, and there was an opening in the CL program. She felt she had common interests with Kang. 

Ng has found it useful to work with other people in the CL program who also care about similar issues. “It was really good to be able to build on what’s been created. Sometimes it can be really daunting to get involved in a task not knowing how to approach it. Having the right people around you, you can get things done,” said Ng.

Ng has been able to bring her experience and passion as a pharmacist into her lobby work with HSA. 

“Ultimately the politicians want to learn from their constituents.” She said it can be effective for politicians to hear her stories.  

“For example, pharmacists see patients that don’t take all their medications,” explained Ng. “You find out there’s hospital readmission. You ask, ‘Why haven’t you been taking your medication?”

She has heard patients say, “‘I’m trying the best I can, but I am having to cut the pills in half because I can’t afford it.’ Or, ‘I have to choose between paying my rent and taking my medication.’”

Ng is able to share these stories with her MLA. 

“If you become passionate about a topic and speak to it, it’s easier to get stuff done,” said Ng.

She said that getting involved with the CL program helped her build a relationship with Kang. She sat on her riding executive for two years. “HSA helped me and I helped HSA,” she said.

“I’ve always been a doer,” she said. “I care about people and I think that does come across.”

She said that through working to build a genuine connection, the intimidation factor is lost. “You can talk to them as a person and not be fearful of them being an ‘untouchable’.” 

Looking to the future

When it comes to political and social action, Ng said she would like to see HSA continue to expand its work around fairness. 

“I would like to see HSA continue to advocate for fairness and equality. Members need to be treated with dignity and respect.” 

“Racism, that’s got to stop. The bullying and harassment – that shouldn’t occur,” said Ng. She said it’s important for HSA to promote respectful workplaces. “It’s on the frontlines, but it’s the bigger picture as well. Whether it be a full-on anti-racism campaign, or teaching about anti-bullying.” 

“What I would like to see is the members speak up in whatever capacity is useful.” She would like to see members engage with stewards around their concerns. 

Tutte said that over the years, she’s learned the impact members can make when empowered with the right tools. 

 “Everyday people can be incredibly passionate and knowledgeable. And if you give them the reins, they can really do incredible things.”

She believes that members can benefit significantly from more education about why unions matter, union history, and economics. 

“I think that the more we can empower HSA members to be advocates for the public system that they work in, then that can go a long way in spreading the word to the public and politicians.”

According to Tutte, it is important to tap into the areas that people are passionate about.

She said that top-down approaches don’t always make for the best outcomes. “Giving people information, training them, and letting them loose with support to engage the public can be really incredible.”