The Humble Beginnings of HSA

HSA was officially created in 1971 as part of a national trend of public sector union growth.

HSA was officially created in 1971 as part of a national trend of public sector union growth. Following an illegal strike by postal workers in 1965 – one of the largest wildcat strikes by public sector workers in canadian history – public employees finally gained similar collective bargaining rights to those held by private sector workers.

According to an HSA newsletter dated March 24, 1971, “The basic idea of a paramedical association began back in December 1969 when it was discovered that most hospital professional employees were not exempt from union membership and that Local 180 [Hospital Employees’ Union] intended to take up the options as outlined in the original certifications.”   

HSA co-founder Sheila Begg, a social worker from Lions Gate Hospital, joined together with a handful of co-workers to begin building a union for paramedical professionals, a process that was catalyzed by a potential strike by Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU) members in 1969. 

According to Begg, “Management at Lions Gate came to us paramedicals and said, ‘When the strike happens, where would you like to work? In the kitchen or the laundry?’” 

But HEU had sent a clear message to non-unionized hospital workers that they were expected to not cross the picket line, said Begg.

She said that she and her colleagues requested a meeting with HEU with the help of the BC Association of Social Workers, but HEU had little interest in meeting with them. A manager at Lions Gate then nudged the group of paramedical professionals to create their own union, and they became aware of their own right to unionize.

“As I understand it, management was speaking with one of the heads of departments. I think it was the head physio, and he let it be known that we should be getting together to create our own organization.” 

“At the time, I didn’t really know what we were supposed to be doing,” said Begg. “We were green as grass.” 

Begg said that initially, there were seven professions interested in coming together: physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dietitians, pharmacists, social workers, medical record librarians, and remedial gymnasts.  

“We were basically looking at anyone who wasn’t part of HEU.” 

Beginning with the larger hospitals in the Lower Mainland, including Lions Gate, St. Paul’s Hospital, and Vancouver General Hospital, word spread among paramedical professionals about the initiative.

“Some of them were very strongly union-minded, and were asking us difficult questions. We said, ‘You’ll have to join us and help.’”

The first formal planning meeting to create an organization was held on April 24, 1970. And in December 1970, laboratory technologists and x-ray technologists joined.  

A committee was formed, which would eventually transform into an executive council for the union. Years later, the council would become what is now HSA’s Board of Directors. 

To recruit workers from other hospitals to join HSA, a small group of volunteers from Lions Gate including Begg, Dietitian and Committee Chair Kit Farrar, and Occupational Therapist Joanne Stan, began travelling around the province, alongside St. Paul’s Hospital Head Pharmacist Ernie Zacharias.

Begg remembers the day that she, Stan, and Zacharias packed their bags and headed to Trail, one Friday after work, in what was their first recruitment road trip. She said it marked a “momentous” next step for HSA. The drive itself was also memorable.

Begg felt unnerved as they drove up the high mountain road from Osoyoos to Trail in the dark. 

“It was really scary,” said Begg. “It’s not a nice one to drive anytime, but definitely not a good one at night.” 

They booked a motel and met with the staff at the hospital. “We explained to them what the process was and what we were trying to do. It worked very well.” 

Hsa’s First Collective Agreement

When it became time to apply to the Labour Relations Board to certify, the group was put in touch with two young lawyers at a relatively new labour law firm. “And they said to us, ‘Now you’ve got to develop a proposal for a collective agreement.’ And we said, ‘What?’ Because we were the Health Sciences Association,” said Begg. 

“And he said, ‘Yes, you’re going to be certified under the Labour Code. You have to bargain with the employer and you need to have a draft of a collective agreement.’”

Before this point, the founding members hadn’t fully understood their role as a union. Begg explained that at the onset, they deliberately called themselves an “association” because they didn’t believe in striking and saw themselves as professionals. “We were married to the idea that we had to take care of our patients.” 

This mentality meant that when HSA’s first constitution was finalized in July 1970, it would include a no-strike clause. In addition to not striking themselves, HSA members were prohibited from honouring the picket lines of other striking workers. In just five years the clause would be eliminated, and by 1975, HSA members would be ready to take job action.

Upon the lawyers’ instructions, they got to work drafting a collective agreement. “That was really interesting because we had no idea what each other’s wages and benefits were. Our department heads would put in a request and we’d take what we were given.” 

Begg suspects that in many cases, they received what HEU had negotiated, despite not being members. 

Applications for certification were submitted to the Labour Relations Board on August 31, 1970 for Vancouver General, Lions Gate, St. Paul’s, and Children’s Hospitals. More would follow. In December, the legal team recommended that some of the applications be withdrawn and resubmitted to include laboratory technologists and x-ray technologists and to accelerate the processing of the LGH and SPH applications. 

While recruitment to the union continued around the province, a tentative collective agreement was reached by June 1, 1972, which was retroactive to 1971.

In the early days, the employer’s side of the bargaining table was all men, according to Begg.  

“In most cases across the table we were all women. And the men didn’t know how to talk to us,” she explained. “It was really interesting. We used to laugh about that. We’d say, ‘Let’s all wear big sunhats,’ or ‘Let’s make sure we’ve got our big dangly earrings on,’ because it was a distraction to them.”

The first contract was a master agreement between HSA and the British Columbia Hospitals’ Association (BCHA), for the period January 1, 1971 to December 31, 1971. It would be adopted hospital-by-hospital as new sites were brought into the union, under directive from the BCHA, and its terms were implemented retroactively. 

The agreement established salary structures for professions throughout the province, and delivered a seven per cent pay increase for all members. “But the hospital will still be able to pay more if it so wishes,” reads a 1972 memo by HSA Vice-President David M. Rushworth.   

From bedroom boxes to a warehouse

By 1972, HSA was ready to establish a proper office. The union needed a place to store all the documents Begg had been storing under her bed. She was heading to visit friends in Australia, and would put her work with HSA on hold for nearly two years. 

“I had all these boxes, applications, and receipts,” said Begg. She told HSA, “Look, I am leaving the country. Somebody has to take responsibility for them.” An office was found on Richards Street at the corner of Drake Street in downtown Vancouver — the Birks Warehouse Building at the time.

“They renamed the building to “Health Sciences Association” but we only had the middle floor and we shared that with the BC Government Professional Employees Association (PEA).” 

“It wasn’t the best neighbourhood in the downtown area,” explained Begg. She used to park her car in the laneway behind the building. “I came out one day and my car was covered in paint because they had painted something on the roof and sprayed it all over my car.” 

In 1972, Dietitian Maureen Whelan began working as HSA’s first field officer, after representing dietitians briefly on the HSA Executive Council. She was about 25 years old at this time.

When the opportunity arose, Whelan said, “Ok, I’ll try this for a year.” She quit her job at Vancouver General Hospital.

She would remain on staff at HSA for 30 years, later serving as the union’s Assistant Executive Director.

Farrar was then working part-time at Lions Gate Hospital and part-time at HSA as the first Executive Director. Whelan’s first few days of work were intense. According to Whelan, “She [Farrar] said, ‘Well Maureen, we have a bit of a problem here.’ I think it was my first day. She said, ‘We have to go up to Prince George because they want to decertify.’” 

They had to leave immediately. They got into her tiny Volkswagen van, and the two went on their first field trip together. 

When they finally arrived at Prince George Hospital, they successfully persuaded the members not to decertify. Farrar returned home after two days, and Whelan ended up staying out on the road for 28 days, organizing other sites into the union.

Union “drives” 

News of HSA spread across BC through word-of-mouth, and Farrar would routinely receive calls from paramedical professionals interested in joining HSA.

“I was just going from one place to another, and another,” explained Whelan. “I came along and said, ‘Listen, we can do something else, we can have our own union.’” 

“Practically everywhere I went, they said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a good idea.’”

After almost two years in the South Pacific, Begg returned to Canada to accept a staff position at HSA, initially to work on developing a pay grade scale with different hospital department heads. “That grading scale that I negotiated stayed for 30 years,” said Begg.

Through the ‘70s, she joined Whelan in the field, meeting with HSA members, organizing new sites, and meeting with employers to resolve workplace issues. 

Whelan said she would sometimes meet with potential members after work, confirm they were interested in certifying, and then would be up at 4 a.m. the next day to drive to another site in order to meet with an administrator in the morning. “I would tell them where they were wrong,” chuckled Whelan. 

When travelling in the north, it was impossible to come home for weekends. The pair planned beautiful weekend stops into their routes – towns that would allow for some nice fishing, hiking, or berry picking. “After a while, we got to know some of the local HSA members, and they would invite us for dinner or join us at the local pub,” said Begg.  

Begg said that sometimes their trips were a bit challenging. “Sometimes, in Fort St. John for example, the motels were very rough because they were a lot of rough oil guys working up there – drillers and whatnot.” She had to get special permission to stay in a nicer hotel. 

“Even there I remember running to the front desk saying, ‘Don’t give anybody my room number!” Begg said travelling alone as young women, they were sometimes mistaken for sex workers. 

Whelan recalls being mistaken for a bra saleswoman on the road. “Occasionally someone would say to me, ‘Oh, are you a bra salesman?’ They thought I would be on the road selling bras,” she said.

“I was a young girl, 25 years old, and I was pretty good looking. And then they would bug me for a lunch, or something like that.”  

“This was 50 years ago.”

Whelan also remembers nearly driving over a bank going to Tofino, and getting her heels covered in mud before an important meeting.

“I remember once I was in Fort St. John and I got out of my car and I put down my foot, and my foot went all the way down, down, and mud went up to my ankle. Both my feet were filled with mud because they have a lot of mud up there in the spring time.”

She loved the work. “It was actually a scream! Just a scream!”

Begg also treasures her memories from HSA. “Oh my goodness, it was wonderful. I loved it!”