Diverse City

I was raised by my Jamaican parents, who immigrated to Canada in the late 70’s. Shortly upon their arrival they both had to start working to make ends meet. My mother got a job working at a downtown hospital and my father learned a trade and started work at General Motors. Both of my parents had unions to represent them.

Growing up in Scarborough Ontario, I was lucky to have friends from a variety of backgrounds; most sharing similar stories of how their parents came from another country to seek greener (and often much colder!) pastures.

My friend Wilma’s parents came from the Philippines. Her Mother was a nurse and her Dad worked for the TTC; both unionized positions. My buddy Jeff’s parents came from Taiwan and his parents worked at a toy factory so he always had the latest gadgets. Jeff’s parents spent long hours on an assembly line putting together these toys. Luckily, they had a unionized job that provided solid health benefits so that they could have safety shoes with orthopedic insoles to make the work less painful.

Many immigrants who came to Canada during that period salute Pierre Trudeau for his work for opening the Canadian border and making Canada the diverse country it is today. But with all these minorities who have been putting in years of service in their unionized positions since the 70’s, one would think that it would only be a matter of time before these workers became more involved within their workplaces and take on a role within the union.

Sure, the Canadian labour movement has undergone several fundamental changes in response to demands for greater inclusion and representation by women, visible and sexual minorities, and people with disabilities. But we are barely scratching the surface. We need a labour movement which engages and includes all our members, and that celebrates the diversity that defines us. The labour movement must recognize the value of these groups and create full space for their participation.

For unions to succeed in the labour world, they must make the most of the full range of their people. Unions, just like any other employer, must attract and retain the right skills, the best minds– including a diverse representation.

Growing up, my mother was a union steward at SEIU. Though I never really knew what she did until I was much older, I thanked the union every time I got to go into the CNE for free after walking in the Labour Day parade; I was aware of the union.

My father would leave Canadian Auto Workers newsletters from General Motors around the kitchen table after coming home from night shifts. I’d wake up for school the next morning and eat my cereal while reading blurbs about possible strike dates and newest model additions to the productions lines.

It’s amazing the level of influence that environment plays in sculpting a person’s views and opinions of the labour world. My parents exposed me to the labour movement without being forceful- but these little glimpses, created awareness within me.

So it begs the question, why aren’t more unions engaging these visible minorities to be involved in what is going on within the labour movement? Or maybe the better question is why don’t more people of colour, women, disabled and sexual minorities get more involved in the labour movement?

During my time at SEIU Healthcare, I’ve been involved with numerous events that celebrated diversity within the membership, as well as played a key role for the neighbourhood in which the event was held. From Chinese New Year celebrations at the Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care, to marching down Yonge Street during the Pride parade, SEIU’s member’s interests reflect those of the community, as diverse as the globe.

Let’s keep the lines of communication open on both sides. The more the union does to connect with the diverse membership, the more those diverse members can inform the union of their interests and needs. It’s also a way for the labour movement to infiltrate and transform the minds of these new generations who are growing up without a connection to labour. There is also a great opportunity and need for union members of all backgrounds to educate their friends and family about the important role that unions play in their lives; this will slowly dispel the taboos associated with unions in many cultures.



Tim Hudak’s unhealthy healthcare plan

Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak says he wants to increase health spending, open more beds in nursing homes, and expand our homecare system.

But can we trust him to deliver on his promises?

If you were to take a look at his past record, there is a good chance he won’t deliver on any of his promises. In fact, past behavior indicates he is more likely to cut healthcare funding, not increase it.

Back in the 1990s when Tim Hudak was first elected, he was a close confidant of former Conservative Ontario Premier Mike Harris. During the 1995 election Harris also promised to increase healthcare spending. But once he became premier, Harris began to sing a different tune. As premier he shut down 28 hospitals throughout the province. There were fewer places for people to receive care. Instead of driving a few kilometres down the road to your local hospital, you had to drive much, much further. This had a big impact on jobs. Thousands of healthcare workers lost their jobs while Harris was in power.

And Mike Harris to this day continues to be a close associate of Tim Hudak. Harris played a key role in Hudak’s 2011 Ontario election campaign. Today, he appears on TV news broadcasts in strong support of the Hudak agenda. Even some of Tim’s speeches on health policy sound identical to what Harris had said in the 1990s!

Another big problem with Hudak’s promises is where he plans to find the money. The Ontario Conservatives want to cut corporate taxes by 30%. This will take $3.4-billion that is currently spent on important public services Ontarians rely on and award them to large, wealthy corporations.  Before Hudak can increase health spending, he will first need to replenish the funds he will be depleting. Where will these funds come from? He isn’t clear.

Hudak claims he will save money by firing 2,000 healthcare planning staff, replace them with volunteers, and offload the costs and responsibilities onto our hospitals. But he is making some very big assumptions. He assumes these staff can be easily replaced with part-time volunteers who can run one of the most complex healthcare systems in North America. Health planning would be so poorly managed that hospitals would probably be forced to rehire many of the same administrators.

Despite all his talk about balancing the books, some elements of Hudak’s plan would increase spending. A key component of his healthcare plan is to allow people to use OHIP dollars on private health clinics. But countless studies have shown that introducing private care will increase the financial strain on our healthcare system. When money is given to private care providers, they are more likely to redirect money from patients to profits. Most people would rather have their taxes spent on patient care rather than line the pockets of healthcare executives.

Once you take a close look at Hudak’s platform, it’s hard to believe he will deliver on any of his healthcare promises. In fact, he has never been sympathetic towards issues that are important to SEIU members. He has promised many times to freeze healthcare wages, dismantle their defined pension plans, and give unionized workers less power in the workplace. Sometimes we need change, but this is not the change healthcare workers are looking for. On June 12th, let’s Stop Hudak and Save Healthcare!



A great announcement and a great day…but now what?

April 29, 2014 was a special day. Two groups of people that don’t normally spend a lot of time together packed a large room in the Toronto Reference Library: personal support workers (PSWs) and politicians.

“Today I wish to pay special respect to those who work in community and homecare,” said the Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, Deb Matthews, to the PSWs who had made the trip. “The bottom line is you’re not paid enough.”

As a homecare PSW in Ontario for more than 20 years, I’ve seen and experienced a lot of changes. Throughout the years, we went from making more money for less work, to a declining progression of making less money for more work.

The main reason is no pay increase in years, while everything else has sky-rocketed, such as gas, car insurance, repair and maintenance, and this is just to get out to work. Then there is rent, mortgage, food, uniform, and often child care, just to mention a few essentials. – Carmen Barnwell, PSW from Oakville

Minister Matthews and her staff had invited unions and professional associations to attend a big announcement about homecare funding. The government was hinting that it would be a raise to go directly to homecare workers.

A sea of purple filled the room. Minister Matthews herself wore a mauve dress as a nod to the colours of SEIU Healthcare, the union that has been lobbying to fix the homecare system for over 20 years. Many of the PSWs in attendance were nervous and excited to see if their work on the “Sweet $16” campaign was going to make change.

John Newman, a PSW client, spoke on stage, sitting in his wheelchair. He teared up saying he “didn’t look forward to [his] future” before starting homecare. His wife Shirley said that John’s PSW takes such good care not only of him, but her as well by relieving her “of a lot of thinking and worrying.”

Before making their announcement, both Minister Matthews and Finance Minister Charles Sousa took some time to share their stories about homecare workers. “You make us all so very, very proud” said Charles Sousa to the PSWs in purple shirts. And Deb Matthews played the Walk-a-day video she did with PSW Juliette Chesney from Milton, Ontario, who was also in the crowd.

The Minister spoke about a SEIU Healthcare PSW from Hamilton. She said: “Last year, Rachel made $16,000. She’s counted among the working poor. She’d make a lot more money working in long-term care or in a hospital.”

Then, the Minister gave details. She promised that all publicly-funded homecare and community care personal support workers in Ontario would get a raise of $1.50 retroactive to April 1, 2014, regardless of whether or not the Liberal budget were to pass. The room erupted in celebration.

Since then, an election has been called for June 12, 2014. Deb Matthews has repeated that the $1.50 across-the-board raise will be given to all Ontario publicly-funded homecare and community care PSWs. But with election campaigns in full swing, no one knows yet exactly when or how that money will be paid out. The rest of the items Minister Matthews promised depend on the outcome of the election on June 12.

Tim Hudak recently said a PC government would cancel planned raises to homecare PSWs. SEIU Healthcare is calling on Andrea Horwath’s NDP to match or surpass the historic measures for homecare workers promised by the Liberal government.

Sweet $16 is a platform to advocate for several key changes to homecare, but the compensation issue stands out. All political parties should commit to immediate raises for homecare PSWs and working hard to fix the many issues faced by the sector, for the betterment of both the workers and their dear clients.


Let our RPNs work to their full scope of practice

The demands on our healthcare system are growing. As Canadians are living longer, they are going to need more medical attention over their lifetime. We need to hire more qualified healthcare professionals to care for a larger number of patients. That means healthcare costs will continue to rise.

One way we can address this issue is by utilizing RPNs to their full capacity. RPN’s responsibilities have grown over the past 30 years. Traditionally, RPNs were the bedside nurse who looked after patients. Today they have much more responsibility, to the point where they have autonomous practice; they are assigned to work with predictable patients with predictable outcomes. RNs tend to focus more on non-predictable cases.

Utilizing RPNs to their full scope of practice will not affect the quality of care they provide for patients. As of 2009, RPNs are able to do approximately 92% of what RNs do on the job. Evidence has shown RPNs share just about the same level of skills as RNs do.

More RPNs working to their full scope of practice will give RNs more time to focus on the most complex and unstable patients. It’s a win-win situation for both groups of nurses.

Evidence shows that hiring more RPNs will also reduce the financial strain on our healthcare system. A study conducted at Toronto East General Hospital on an inter-professional team of RPNs, RNs and PSWs discovered that this model is a better way to utilize the unique knowledge and skill that each discipline brings to the team. The model had better levels of care, patient satisfaction, workplace satisfaction.

The study also revealed that this model led to savings. Two of the three units were able to shave 6% of their costs. If you were to apply these savings to every hospital throughout Ontario, it would amount to over $1-billion. That is a significant amount of money in a $17-billion provincial hospital budget.

In a recent interview with the Toronto Metro News, SEIU Healthcare President, Sharleen Stewart confidently states that “More RPNs working to their full scope of practice means RNs will be freed up to care for more complex patients.” There is room for all of these qualified professionals in our healthcare system, and it’s important that the system allows them to work together.


What is happening to our “free” healthcare?

Canada’s public healthcare system is something a lot of us are fond of and sometimes brag about to any American who will listen.

So why do we keep hearing about services shifting to privatized companies?

At what point does a system become “public” in name only?

Are we in danger of having our public dollars fund something that is really a private, for-profit system?

People sometimes casually call our system “free.” Of course it is not that simple—we all pay taxes to the government and then the government takes a big chunk of those
taxes and spends it on healthcare. The seemingly “free” part comes in when all Ontarians, regardless of income, can access services easily and without paying out of pocket.

It has served many of us well when we really needed to see a doctor or get a test or exam done or visit the ER by flashing our health card or giving our name. It helps us deliver babies. Save lives. Guide us through the end stages of our lives. All without forcing us put off getting the care we need or go bankrupt in the process.

But over the last couple of decades, we’ve started paying more out-of-pocket for medications and procedures. And we’ve seen more and more private companies take the lead on providing care.

Dia[b]logue recently reported on a forum where the Vice-President of Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital spoke of some concerns about new services being sent out of hospitals to community-based clinics.

Those concerns include whether hospitals will be left with not enough funding to do the most complicated procedures, and whether private clinics have enough accountability measures in place to know that they are using public funds appropriately.

SEIU Healthcare is part of the Ontario Health Coalition and its campaign Save our Services! The Coalition held a mock referendum for healthcare throughout Ontario on March 29. Over 56,000 people “voted” for public healthcare.

It seems like we have a strong appreciation for “free” or public healthcare and we need to be vigilant because efforts are underway to make it less and less so.