“Unions. What are they good for?!”

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Here is an excerpt of a speech I delivered to a classroom filled with PSW students at George Brown College.

“Unions. What are they good for?!” I hear this a lot from people who think unions have outlived their purpose. A large minority of Canadians feel unions are not good for the economy. They believe organized labour had a role in the 19th century but they have outlived their purpose in today’s economy. Some even feel unionized workers are overpaid and lazy.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Unions negotiate collective agreements that improve their working conditions. Unionized workers on average earn 30% more than non-unionized workers. They enjoy better pensions, improved medical and dental benefit plans, pensions, job security, and much more. Unionized employees are far more likely to belong to the middle class than their non-union counterparts.

Have unions outlived their purpose? Absolutely not. Many of us don’t even know about all the great things unions have done for us. Unions are responsible for creating a 5-day work week, an 8-hour day, a two-day weekend, outlawed child labour, introduced health and safety laws, a minimum wage, 2-week vacations, paid holidays, and much more. Many of us today simply take these things for granted. Many people don’t realize a strong labour movement is what stops these things from being taken away from us. Remember, it wasn’t Bay Street, Canada’s Fortune 500, big banks, or factory owners who fought for these things. It was unions.

Contrary to what people think, unions haven’t lost that much power over the past 50 years. 31.5% of Canadians workers belong to a union. That’s almost one-third of the Canadian labour force. And some unions are growing at a very fast rate. Take SEIU Healthcare for example. They have grown by 46% over the past 12 years. The union has expanded in nursing homes, homecare, retirement homes, hospitals and community services. In fact, SEIU Healthcare is one of the fastest growing unions in Ontario.

In the United States, unions have lost much of their power over the past 50 years. And it shows. Only 11% of workers are unionized. Did you know the Americans are not entitled to any paid vacation time? In Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, every paid worker has a right to at least four weeks of vacation. In America, companies are not required to provide any vacation time whatsoever. Companies usually provide vacation time, but there is no law requiring them to do so.

The American minimum wage is much lower too. In Ontario the minimum wage is $11.25. In the United States it’s $7.25. The good news however is that thanks to the efforts of SEIU International and other unions, many cities in the US have adopted the $15/hr minimum wage.

In individual states where unions are weak, employee salaries on average tend to be slightly lower than the Canadian average. Does that mean companies are saving money on labour costs? Managerial and executive salaries tend to be higher. In other words, unions don’t force companies to spend money on high wages they can’t afford. That money simply stays at the top.

Without a strong labour movement, Corporate Canada has a lot more power to take away the rights and freedoms Canadian employees have fought for over the past 150 years. Unions give employees a voice in their workplace – a voice that should never fall silent.

French’s- Loblaws controversy reinvigorates labour activism

By now you’re probably familiar with the French’s-Loblaws controversy, but what you may not know is that this fight isn’t about ketchup (as some ridiculous GTA radio station tried to assert this morning); it’s about saving jobs and ultimately, protecting an entire town.

Last Friday a colleague of mine showed me a video he had posted regarding his outrage at Heinz for closing down its long-running Leamington plant. This obnoxious move by Heinz, cost 740 jobs; essentially, an entire town was put out of business. An entire town!

And so my colleague John, who many of you know on Facebook as “John Tard” proceeded to create two videos: (a) the first demanding Canadians stand in solidarity with French’s (who rehired many of the workers), and (b) the second which challenged Loblaws’ decision to pull French’s ketchup from its shelves. This second video not only drew the most media attention over the past 48 hours, but also most definitely contributed to Loblaws reversing its poor, initial decision.

Now many people are quick to judge what the lesson learnt is, be it extolling the marvels of social media, or a renewed sense of buying local.

For me, this incident highlights the true meaning of labour activism and John is a great example of this dying breed of activists. As a Union Representative, John understands firsthand the challenges and threats that face Ontario workers, and he also understands the necessity to protect workers’ rights. However, and perhaps more importantly, John’s example demonstrates to us that activism isn’t just about protecting “my job” or “my co-workers” or “my department”- it’s about standing up for all workers’ rights.

John doesn’t live in Leamington and doesn’t have roots there, but when he heard that an entire town was going to lose its job, he knew that he had to act fast. As he states in the National Post, “The funny thing is, I don’t even like ketchup that much… But what I do love is Canadian workers.”

Make of it what you may, John Romanelli just hit the refresh button on the labour movement, and for that we should be grateful: game on!

By: Shilpa R. Sharma

Hospital with $50-million donation “works together as a team”

Staff at the newly renamed Michael Garron Hospital – formerly Toronto East General – joined many well-wishers in Ontario when they heard about the Garron family’s $50-million donation to the hospital and the touching reason behind it.

Michael Garron died from cancer at the age of 13. His fear was that he’d be forgotten.

His mother Berna had given birth to Michael at the hospital in 1962. With their generous donation, and the renaming of the hospital of his birth, Myron and Berna have permanently memorialized their son.

This gift shows just how much a positive experience in the healthcare system can stick with a family.

Juanita Barrett

Juanita Barrett has worked at Michael Garron Hospital for nearly 16 years. She said although this donation is incredibly large, she isn’t surprised the Garrons wanted to give.

“People donate because they feel the hospital made a difference in their life.”

She has worked in a variety of roles at the hospital and is currently Facility Services Lead – she audits housekeeping services, does infection control, and coordinates with maintenance staff, among other tasks that keep the hospital running in good shape for the patients.

Juanita is a union steward, and loves the hospital. She attributes a lot of the hospital’s successes to a general positive attitude among its more than 2,000 staff members.

“The hospital is very friendly, from the CEO down. Even when my own family members go there, they always talk about how friendly people are. We work together as a team.”

Housekeeping and management come together for hospital fair in Newmarket

Carrie Dawson has worked in housekeeping at Southlake Hospital in Newmarket for 30 years, so she knows the ins and outs of the workplace and the health and safety issues that linger there.

Together with her colleagues and with the cooperation of management and HR at the hospital, she helped throw a successful health and safety fair that was attended by staff and even the CEO.

“We came up with an idea because housekeeping seems to be largely involved with a lot of WSIB and sick plan claims. Management has been great – they listen to us, there is give and take.”

Southlake Hospital info fair

Carrie, centre right, with her colleagues and Manny Carvalho (background)

There were about 14 booths. Manny Carvalho, SEIU Healthcare Secretary-Treasurer, got his flu vaccine at one booth. There was mask fit testing for staff at another. HOOPP was there to answer questions about the pension plan.

Demonstrations included how to push stretchers and hampers and lift boxes safely.

Workplace violence is also an important issue that was addressed at the event. “Southlake enforces the no-tolerance violence policy, and I’m also on the workplace violence committee,” says Carrie.

Carrie lives in Newmarket with her husband and son, but she’s not far from her daughter either – she also works at Southlake as a nurse.

“I really like being a part of the union and trying to help other people. The chief steward stepped down and I have stuck to it ever since then.”

Believe in your rights

We have to believe in our rights to make them real. In human societies, change can seem slow. Recognition can be elusive. Expectations are raised. Hopes are easily dashed. But we have to keep working on it, taking the rights we have on paper and keep trying to apply them in practice.

Whether it’s our human rights, our rights at work, or our civil rights – these aren’t things anyone can afford to take for granted. Our rights are a work in progress.

Human Rights Day

Today is Human Rights Day, marked by the United Nations on the anniversary of the 1948 signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year is also the 50th anniversary of two international covenants – on human rights and political and civil rights.

These documents set out “the civil, political, cultural, economic, and social rights that are the birth right of all human beings.”

It seems fitting that today also marks the day that the first special plane of Syrian refugees coming to Canada has arrived and hundreds of people start their new life here this week.

We know that international borders can make the difference between a chaotic, dangerous, and traumatizing life, and the chance for a calm, safe, prosperous existence. And human rights should apply in all states regardless of borders.

When it is impossible for people to achieve their basic human rights, it is natural for them to do whatever they can, including moving away from everything they know, to get access to resources we all need to live.

If those global citizens can do that, we can look at ourselves and examine our rights, how to fight for them, and how to always keep believing in them.

Wendy thriving in hospital administration while living with disability

December 3 is International Day of People with Disabilities, a day dedicated to promoting an understanding of people living with disabilities and encourage support for their dignity, rights, and well-being.

Life can be a lot more challenging if you have a physical, mental, visible, or invisible disability. But people living with disabilities find inspirational ways to succeed in their professional and personal lives.

Wendy from Thunder Bay

Take Wendy Norhaugen, an SEIU Healthcare member who works for St. Joseph’s Care Group in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She has been living with a disability for her entire life. She has a successful career in administration and in November 2015 was elected to SEIU Healthcare’s Executive Board as the Persons with Disability representative.

“I was born completely deaf in my left ear,” Wendy says.

“When I was young I grew up reading people’s lips without knowing it. If someone is talking to me behind me, I will turn around and look directly at them so I can hear what they are saying.”

She has found many employers have been very accommodating to her needs. But she knows that sometimes, individual managers may not be as understanding. One manager she worked with in the past would taunt and tease her. Sometimes he would quietly stand behind her for long periods of time until she would notice him. Other times he would lower his voice to make sure she couldn’t hear or understand him.

Frustrated with the manager’s bullying, she left her job and went back to school to earn a degree in medical administration. She scored high grades by sitting in front of the classroom so she could hear the teacher’s every word.

She feels her disability can be an issue but it doesn’t define her. Today she works in the administrative department at the hospital where she books appointments, handles discharges, manages the switchboard, and more.

“Lots of hurtful things have been thrown at me but it just makes me stronger,” she said. “But I do understand that in a lot of cases people with disabilities experience a lot of stress. They can have a hard time coping. Many suffer from depression.”

The good news is employers can help people living with disabilities succeed in the workplace. All an employer really needs to do is ask them what tools they need to succeed. At the hospital where she works Wendy feels they have done a lot to support her. She is a highly productive employee that hospital staff trust and rely on.

“I find that there is not enough knowledge. Many managers may not know how to deal with people who have disabilities. Education is a big part of it.”

Calling all workers of Italian descent

Have you ever wondered where our workplace health and safety laws came from? As with most rights workers have achieved, they didn’t come from out of nowhere.

Many injured workers in the 1970s were Italian-Canadians working in dangerous industries such as construction and mining.

Thanks to those workers and their families taking action, important amendments to the Workers’ Compensation Act came into effect in 1985 in Ontario, including the creation of an independent appeals tribunal and the Office of the Worker Adviser, which is a free resource for people with health and safety concerns at work.

Over 770 names of Italian workers killed as a result of work over the past century in Ontario will be included on a new public memorial.

But the Italian Fallen Workers’ Memorial project thinks there are many more names we don’t know.

Do you know of any Italian workers killed as a result of work or want additional information on the project? If so, email marinotoppan@hotmail.com.

The memorial will be unveiled in 2016 in Toronto, an homage to and reminder of the people who came before us to fight for the protections that we now have.

If you are a healthcare worker, we know you face many safety issues at work. Consider helping us break the silence by filling out our survey on workplace violence.