Roadmaps Chronicles: SEIU on the road!

After being on the road with Manny and Sharleen last year during the Justice for PSWs campaign, there was talk of another road trip to connect with members in units across the province. I know first-hand the impact of getting to visit the work places, shaking hands with a person and looking them in the eyes versus an era of retweets and “likes”.

I’m thrilled that we’ll be hitting the road this fall to meet with members on their own turf- in their local community!

With Toronto being called a hub of social media in Ontario, it’ll be interesting to see the interactions and how things shift in terms of how we connect with our members a little further away from the “big city”. For example, our members in Thunder Bay usually come to us, or send us submissions to events online. This is the first time in 3 years that anyone in our communications department has ventured out to Thunder Bay to see the members directly. I’m looking forward to being able to build some connections to members who actually read and are engaged with our content online.

Look for me at your local event- I’ll probably be carrying a camera! Tell me what I should check out for the limited time I’m there and I’ll be sure to connect with you personally while I’m there, even give you a shout out on our blog!

I’ve been known to stay inside the hotel and use the gym equipment, but maybe in Thunder Bay I’ll take a jog past the Terry Fox monument or if I’m feeling super lazy, I’ll try and take a train around Centennial Park. In reality I doubt I’ll have much free time to do any of that because we will be visiting members for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

I try my best when I take pictures to take a moment and introduce myself. I’ve got pretty good at remembering faces but names are another story. I could tell you the last time I took your photos, what event you’ve attended and where to find it on our server. Names however tend to escape me almost as soon as they’ve been shared; horrible I know, but I do tend to meet a lot of people. Please forgive me. Usually the names I do remember are the people who hate to have their picture taken (and have told me so on numerous occasions) or people whose photos we’ve used for larger campaigns.

I’m looking forward to seeing as many of you as possible out on the road, with your families, on your turf. Let’s talk, let’s have coffee, let’s make SEIU Healthcare better together!



Inter-Union harmony?

Last week, SEIU Healthcare played host to a historical event: a meet-up of Organizers from different unions across the Province. The intention behind this event was to bring together like-minded individuals to engage in dialogue on how to grow & strengthen the labour movement (among other reasons).

For some time now, many activists in the labour movement, from one union to the next, have felt fragmented; as though they are no longer on the same team as their comrades. Unfortunately, politicians have picked up on this internal disharmony, and have attempted on many occasions to use it to their advantage. Hence the threat of “Right to Work” legislation that has infiltrated the USA, as well as the most recent re-introduction of Bill C-377 in Canada (which our most recent blog post brought to light).

Last Spring, we saw a lot of inter-union harmony, as unions joined forces to Stop Hudak’s anti-union agenda. The result was a resounding success, with many acknowledging the power of union’s in halting Hudak’s agenda.

It’s clear that when we come together with like-minded individuals, to think long-term about the sustainability of the labour movement, we are bound to bump heads; but we are making an effort to put aside our differences to do what’s best for worker’s right.

The question that we pose to our fellow labour activists is how can we put #workersfirst? This will be an area worth continuously exploring.


The historical roots of Canada’s labour day celebrations

How do Canadians view Labour Day? Most people see it as the last long weekend of the summer. It’s a chance to relax, regroup and get ready for the busy fall schedule. Unfortunately, many people don’t know the history behind Labour Day. It took many decades of struggle before Labour Day became a national holiday.

The origins of Labour Day began in 1872. Back then many people worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. There was no such thing as employment law, workers compensation, or a weekend.

In March of that same year, the printers union in Toronto wanted a 9-hour work day. But their employers refused to give in to their demands. That month they went on strike.

Public sympathy for the printers was high. In April, 2,000 workers marched through the streets of Toronto in a solidarity march. By the time they reached Queen’s Park, more than 10,000 people joined the demonstration. At the time, this was a tenth of Toronto’s population.

The printing industry started to get scared. Led by publishing magnate George Brown, their employers brought in workers from nearby towns to replace the strikers. They even pressured the government to charge and arrest the strike leaders for criminal conspiracy!

Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who was a political opponent of George Brown, saw the benefit of siding with the workers. Macdonald spoke out against Brown’s actions at a public demonstration at City Hall, gaining the support of the workers and embarrassing his rival. Macdonald passed the Trade Union Act, which repealed outdated that old British labour laws that decriminalized unions. The strike leaders were released from jail.

The workers still did not obtain their immediate goals of a shorter work week. In fact, many lost their jobs. But their strike proved that workers could gain the attention of their employers, the public, and most importantly, their political leaders if they worked together. The “Nine-Hour Movement,” as it became known, spread to other Canadian cities and a shorter work week became the primary demand of union workers in the years following the Toronto strike.

The parade that was held in support of the strikers carried over into an annual celebration of worker’s rights and was adopted in cities throughout Canada. The parades demonstrated solidarity, with different unions identified by the colorful banners they carried. In 1894, under mounting pressure from the working class, Prime Minister Sir John Thompson declared Labour Day a national holiday. 

Over time, Labour Day strayed from its origins and evolved into a popular holiday. That’s why it’s important to take a minute to think about Canada’s labour pioneers. Their actions laid the foundations for future labour movements and helped employees secure the rights and benefits we all currently enjoy.

Where will you be on labour day this year? Check what’s happening around you.


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.


Why homecare workers need a raise

This short video reminds Ontarians what homecare personal support workers (PSWs) do and how much we rely on them as a society. Almost everyone knows a special someone who is keen (or even insistent) on staying at home because they want to live independently. But they need help. Homecare PSWs need help too. The Sweet $16 campaign is about more than wages, however. It calls on the Ontario government to do four concrete things to fix the Ontario homecare system. Share the video and email your MPP to help raise awareness about this issue!


A stable pension is more important than ever- for all Ontarians

The second recommendation of SEIU Healthcare’s Sweet$16 campaign is for the Ontario government to offer retirement security to the lowest earning members of our healthcare system- homecare Personal Support Workers. But actually, this is an issue that affects all Ontarians.

Over the past three decades, the number of companies who provide pension plans to their employees has dropped by a substantial rate. Employers are not only eliminating defined benefit plans, but also defined RRSP contribution plans as well.

That means a larger number of homecare workers and Ontarians are being forced to rely entirely on their savings and their Canadian Pension Plan (CPP). Unfortunately, many don’t have enough money saved up for their retirement. Many will be forced to work until they are 70-75 years of age before they can retire.

Many financial experts believe people cannot simply retire on their CPP alone. The CPP pays a measly $600 a month. For some people, that isn’t enough to cover the rent. The vast majority of non-unionized PSWs in the homecare sector don’t make enough money to save for their retirement. And most PSWs don’t even work full-time hours. They usually work part-time, irregular hours that change every week. Imagine driving from one location to the next, without adequate compensation for gas & mileage, paying the bills and taking care of your own family, all on the above salary. That’s barely enough to live off of, let alone try and save. A defined benefit pension plan will bring some more stability and peace-of-mind in an erratic industry.

“As a single parent, if I don’t have a pension, who is going to look after me?” asked Elena Saballero, a homecare worker and SEIU Healthcare member who lives in Toronto. “I only have one child and I can’t expect him to take care of me. If I have a pension, I can look after myself.”

A pension plan will help also help reduce employee turnover. Many PSWs suffer from low wages and irregular work hours. Many also don’t receive any kind of compensation for the time they drive in-between clients. They are leaving homecare and moving into sectors, such as retail and restaurants, where they are given a stable 40-hour work week.

It’s time for employers to start offering defined benefit pension plans to Ontario’s homecare workers. After spending their life looking after our senior population, there is no reason why this group of hard-working healthcare workers cannot retire with ease and comfort in their golden years.

Tell your MPP that Ontario’s homecare workers, our frontline caregivers, not only deserve a minimum of $16/hour, but a defined benefit pension plan as well. Our healthcare system depends on it.


$16/hour minimum for homecare PSWs is a question of need, not just worth

While a group of about 80 personal support workers (PSWs) were talking about SEIU Healthcare’s “Sweet $16” campaign at a conference in Toronto in early March, a woman stood up to make a very important point.

“My only issue,” she said “is only saying that we deserve a $16 per hour minimum wage. We really need it. I can’t afford to live like this anymore.”

In Ontario, unlike PSW work in other sectors such as long-term care, which pays an average of $20/hour, homecare work currently pays far less than what the PSWs both need and deserve.

Chrystal is a single mom who relies on subsidized childcare to afford to go to work. Those are her own words. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work—especially not for healthcare workers who put their heart and soul into keeping people comfortable at home. Chrystal should be able to work full-time, reliable hours at a decent wage, raise her son, and maybe save a little on the side. But that’s not how it is right now.

She provides her services to people in their own homes because she believes that rather than be forced into retirement or long-term care homes, people “should be able to stay where they are comfortable.”

Watch homecare PSW Chrystal talk about her work and what $16/hour would mean to her:

While homecare PSWs do a lot of physical and technical work in the home to monitor and maintain clients’ health, they also provide emotional support and help with social isolation. Many visits start off with a cup of tea or a chat, and sometimes their PSW is the only person a client sees all day or week.

You can see that Chrystal believes in the work she does. She knows her fellow PSWs care, too: “I think homecare workers have their heart in homecare for a reason and that is to help people have a quality of life.”

The only provincial standard for homecare wages is that PSWs must be paid a minimum of $12.50 an hour. Especially when taking into account the fact that most companies don’t properly reimburse for travel time and distance, or guarantee hours paid, this is not nearly enough.

A $16/hour floor would be a good start, but homecare PSWs and their advocates will need to push for parity with PSW work in the long-term care and hospital sectors.

Higher pay is better for the workers, it’s better for the clients, and it’s better for all Ontarians who will be able to attract and retain skilled PSWs in homecare. And we will all likely need their services one day.