The importance of unions: Retired hospital workers on the role of unions in their lives

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At the recent Convention of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada, delegates heard Ed Broadbent speak on "Equality and the Importance of Unions," and we wanted to find out what their unions had meant to them. This column is the first of a series based on interviews at the convention.

Joyce Kerr and Mary Riddell are both retired hospital employees from the Greater Toronto area and members of the Service Employees International Union Retirees Committee. They both knew from personal experience the difference that having a union made in their lives.

Joyce Kerr began working at Sick Kids in Toronto where there was no union to represent workers. When she switched to work at Mount Sinai which was unionized, she immediately recognized the difference. Having a union meant fair play for the workers. If there were problems, grievances were available to resolve them.

Joyce quickly became a union steward and found her work was necessary "to ensure people got a second chance even if they were in the wrong." She noted that her union work was "not easy" but she persisted and moved up to chief steward and a position on the executive board of the local union.

She dealt one-on-one with the hospital human resource person. She succeeded by "frank dealing which built trust." This trust allowed her to negotiate troublesome situations. One of these situations was a proposal to contract out her own job! In part due to her work, this proposal did not go through.

Joyce also served as a member of the negotiation committee. While improving benefits and wages were always staff goals, she realized that they were not always possible to achieve. She used what had been gained in other similar contracts as a way of tackling this challenge. Job security was a big issue for most workers whom she represented. She found that the seniority system brought about job security for staff and an overall workable system. She commented, "Overall, seniority was positive. And having a union meant job security. In a private company, personnel changes meant lost jobs."

Her union work was based on fact, not emotion. Joyce said that she had to keep extensive notes to share with her union members and staff. She described her notes as "extensive fine tuning" which she passed on to others who succeeded her.

As demanding as her union work had been, Joyce found in looking back that it was an important and worthwhile part of her life.

Mary Riddell is now retired from North York General Hospital where she had served as steward and then chief steward for SEIU. Mary went through a time when she could have lost her job but she didn't, thanks to the union acting on her behalf. As a result Mary became active in her union and began to see unions in the bigger picture of her work. She had no doubts about the value of a union in a hospital where job security is a big issue. She said, "In a hospital, it meant that staff is considered for job openings."

Mary saw the union's value in negotiating a defined benefit plan for people like her at the hospital. She became a pension observer. In that role, she was proud of the fact that her pension plan, HOOP or Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan was well funded. She did observe that while members appreciate the job the union does for them, they often play little part except when they get involved in a grievance. She pointed out that the union had undertaken a number of pay equity cases. One of these had resulted in a $5-an-hour wage increase. Indeed, this increase also helped raise retirement pension payments considerably.

Both Joyce and Mary had no doubts about the value of unions. They continue to be active in retirement in their retirees committee and CURC. They strongly oppose the threat by Tim Hudak's proposal to end the Rand formula. Personal experience tells them that workers will lose from such legislation.

Retiree Matters is a monthly column written by members of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) that explores issues relevant to retirees, senior citizens, their families and their communities. CURC acts as an advocacy organization to ensure that the concerns of union retirees and senior citizens are heard throughout Canada.

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