Deprivatising healthcare workers and sustaining cross-sector solidarity

Though many people thought that the COVID-19 pandemic would bring union activism to a halt, in British Columbia the Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU) pushed for and won decisive victories for its members and for the public as a whole during this time.

The HEU has always had strong democratic processes at the level of the shop floor. Consistently supporting these processes and simultaneously adopting strategies of grassroots campaigns involving workers across the sector, ongoing lobbying of government decision makers, and regularly putting forward well-researched and argued policy positions, the HEU helped bring about changes in the care sector that had positive impacts far beyond its members and those using health services. It extended solidarity and care for all.

The HEU is a highly gendered and racialised union, and it has always been an activist union at the forefront of improvements for working people, particularly in health care and in long-term care for older people.

One of the victories involved the deprivatisation of more than 5,000 health care workers despite claims that privatisation can’t be reversed. It was a big and decisive win for all of us. The second was winning a twinned set of policies aimed at the long-term care sector where workers struggled to care for older people in the face of the vicious and aggressive virus.

Chronologically, the first of these policy wins was in single-site work. In order to slow the spread of the virus from care home to care home, workers (many of whom worked for multiple employers just to make ends meet) were restricted to working at a single site and could do so up to 1.3 of a full-time equivalent (FTE) position. This impacted 49,000 workers, and intertwined with this move was the levelling of wages across the public, private and nonprofit sectors. This meant that all three paid the same hourly wages and there was no advantage to ditching one job to take another and no cut in wages for working at a single site.

For the 37 per cent of the long-term care workforce in the private sector, these policies meant a wage increase of $6/hour. This helped stabilize the labour force and improve care and morale at a desperate time. The HEU had long argued that private long-term care should be brought back into the public sector, and this innovative policy ensured public sector-level wages for long-term care workers regardless of where they worked.

HEU spokesperson Mike Old reported that members were “very keen on single site and wage levelling as an aspect of health and safety, and strongly supported it. There was a real spark there.” Similarly, a veteran union activist argued: “This policy stood to save lives, including our lives, and we fought hard for it. I was really proud of our members.”

These policies are not expected to end as the pandemic ebbs, with public support at 88 per cent approval for their continuance and the BC government announcing that wage levelling across the sector will “most likely remain”.

An unexpected outcome of the HEU’s successful resistance was the growth in union membership during the COVID crisis. As HEU spokesperson Old noted, “we organized a lot of unorganized care workers during the pandemic. Sites of the deadliest outbreaks, Lynn Valley and Langley Lodge, had been union members a long time ago, but they had been contracted out and lost their union. They rejoined after 20 years out, during the pandemic”.

In 2001, a right-wing government introduced Bill 29 which completely violated collective agreements by firing 10,000 health care team workers from their public sector jobs. Workers were given the chance to apply for their contracted-out and privatised jobs, and only a portion were rehired as the private companies slashed wages and benefits, and cut jobs to increase their profit margins. The unions, impacted by ‘the largest mass firing of women in Canada’, took the government to the International Labour Organization (ILO) who naturally strongly condemned the government. The unions also went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada who ruled that the government had violated Section 2(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees the right of employees to meaningfully associate in the pursuit of collective workplace goals, including the right to collective bargaining. This formal reassertion of the right to collective bargaining from the highest court in the land was an important reminder to all employers, and added fuel to the fire for the HEU in terms of continuing the unwavering, long-term strategy to bring its members back into the public sector.

Ending almost two decades of right-wing governments, the centre-left New Democratic Party was elected to government in 2017. The HEU was first in line to lobby the new government with strong arguments that to stabilize and improve health care overall, privatized workers had to be moved back to the public sector. One year later, the government introduced legislation rescinding Bill 29 and related laws. The event, live-streamed during a union convention, brought tears of joy to HEU members and activists. This set the stage for negotiations between the union, government and health employers that saw nearly 5,000 hospital dietary and cleaning staff repatriated by the end of 2022.

Despite the stark challenges of the pandemic, as contracts with private companies wound down, healthcare workers were shifted back to public sector employment, often greeted by fellow workers with applause and celebration. As private sector dietary aide Catalina Samson argued when the first group of workers were repatriated, “we’re a vital part of the team, and today I feel like our work is being recognized for that. Reuniting us with the rest of the health care team is a great act of solidarity”. HEU members also responded positively as Barb Owen, Vice-Chair of her HEU local notes, “it’s such an inspiration for our members of our locals to see our colleagues gain so much. Our locals will be stronger. We’ll have more people, more energy, and more boots on the ground.”

The HEU strategies were a broad, inclusive, social justice strategy of enhancing wages and conditions while simultaneously improving care. The strategies meant that workers were able not only to fight against something but also to fight successfully for something unprecedented and new, proving that long-term activism and solidarity pay off, even during global pandemics.

Donna Baines is a Professor and the previous Director of the University of British Columbia School of Social Work.

The author wishes to thank Transforming Society where this blog was first published.