The Union Is as Strong as Its Members

In the 1990s, HSA’s organizing department was focused on organizing new worksites into HSA.

In the 1990s, HSA’s organizing department was focused on organizing new worksites into HSA. 

This important work expanded HSA’s membership and raised workplace standards for a number of newly-unionized workers in the health and community social service sectors. 

But beginning in 2001, HSA’s organizing efforts faced a major hurdle. “With the change in government from NDP to BC Liberals in 2001, the ability to organize new members into the union became much more difficult because of changes to the Labour Code,” explained HSA Organizer Janice Davis. 

She said this led to a switch in focus for the union. While there were some efforts in the 1990s to enhance member education and increase support for stewards, according to Davis, “It wasn’t until 2001 that we became more focused on member engagement.” 

Around this time, HSA staff began to work closely with steward teams to develop leadership and build chapters. New workshops were developed to train stewards. 

In recent years, Assistant Chief Steward Kane Tse, an assistant bioinformatics co-ordinator at BC Cancer (Vancouver), has worked with organizers and fellow stewards to build the HSA chapter at his worksite. But his entry into HSA activism happened slowly. When he first became a union member in 2005, he didn’t know a lot about unions. 

At that point, he knew he was paying union dues, “But I didn’t know what those gave me, or what they did,” he explained.

He started attending chapter meetings, but still felt a bit like an outsider there.

“I was trying to get one co-worker to come so I wouldn’t feel alone, not realizing that that meeting was a room full of union members,” he reflected. 

“So really, I wasn’t alone.” 

He went to meetings wanting to engage, but was not quite sure how to. During union business, Tse would ask himself, “’Do I speak up now? Do I ask questions? Is he just telling me information?’ I was trying to be engaged.”

After years of union membership, he stepped up to become a steward in 2013 when an HSA labour relations officer requested a steward for his department, the Genome Sciences Centre. “I thought, ‘Yeah, I might want to sign up for that,” said Tse. “This was when my experience with the union just took off.”

Tse said he fully embraced his steward role after attending an HSA stewards’ training session.

“I went to basic stewards’ training, which I still think today was one of the greatest trainings. It totally changed my perspective on what it means to engage with the union.”

Over the past two decades, HSA has widened the spectrum of education it provides members. 

In addition to basic stewards’ training, members can now participate in workshops that explore social justice topics such as decolonization, racism in health care and social services, and workplace support topics including psychological health and safety in the workplace, and supervisors in the union. 

The rise of member engagement teams 

Davis believes that HSA’s first modern-day member-to-member contact campaign was launched in 1995 when registered psychiatric nurses (RPNs) reached out to other RPNs across the province. Today, HSA has a robust member engagement program, which provides resources and support to help members create connections with their peers and promote member-driven campaigns.

That member-to-member engagement has been a key element of more recent HSA member campaigns, including HSA’s nearly 20-year involvement in the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation Run for the Cure from 1996-2014, the anti-raid campaign outreach in 2015, the 2016 workload survey, the 2018 Proportional Representation campaign, the 2018-2019 Stomp Out Period Poverty campaign, and the 2019 Presumptive Coverage campaign.

Tse joined HSA’s core member engager program in 2020. In this role, he worked alongside six other member engagers to encourage participation by members in HSA’s Sick Leave for All campaign. The campaign called on the province to legislate 10 annual paid sick days as part of employment standards.

The campaign strengthened the call for paid sick days by inviting members to send letters via an HSA webpage to Premier John Horgan, Minister of Labour Harry Bains, and Minister of Health Adrian Dix, while providing ways for members to feel connected to their union, and contribute to building a stronger presence at chapters.

Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, the campaign was successful. 

“We had to rely on things like virtual chapter meetings, phone banking, and text banking – those types of activities,” said Tse.

Collectively, the member engagers presented at 52 meetings, made 857 phone calls, and sent over 6,329 texts. More than 25 per cent of those texts received replies. Members sent over 1,000 letters to the province, and more than 130 new HSA activists and stewards were recruited over the six-week outreach period. 

According to Tse, the core member members welcomed the campaign, which was timely given the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Access to paid sick days is a public health issue that affects the spread of infectious disease and impacts workplace safety. Tse said HSA members working in long-term care facilities – whose workplaces have been particularly hard hit by tragedy over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic – were especially supportive of HSA’s work on the issue. “They were definitely very happy that HSA was coming to bat for them, doing things that would make their situation better,” he said. 

Tse said he has learned a lot about other HSA members through his union involvement. He thinks member engagement is important because it can strengthen the connections members feel with each other, and establish links they don’t realize exist.

“The reality is we are all in clusters of professions, and we all feel isolated in the union,” said Tse. “The things that we want are the same. Maybe we carry out our work differently but our goals are actually for the most part very similar.” 

“It helps to realize that we have more things in common than not, even though we tend to think of ourselves as separated.”