President’s Speech: HSAA Focused on Awareness, Engagement and Advocacy

Good morning,

Well, it’s great to be with you all this morning.

Are you all having a pretty good time so far?

I think we’re going to have a great couple of days together. I can’t tell you the number of hours of work that goes into putting a convention like this together – mostly because I have no idea. All I know is that we’ve been thinking about this, planning it and putting it together for months now. I hope you enjoy yourselves and are able to leave here having learned a thing or two.

Our union took a pretty sharp turn in this past year. Some of it was obvious – we said good-bye to Elisabeth Ballermann, our president of 21 years. I’ll talk a little more about her in a second.

That meant I became your new president and in the by-election that followed, Trudy Thomson was chosen as your new vice-president. It’s a good thing both of us managed to get some holiday time in during the summer because we had to hit the ground running at the end of August. If it’s true that you learn by doing, then I would say we both learned a lot very quickly, because those first couple of months are now a complete blur.

One of the most important events that happened early on was our board’s annual retreat in September where we set our priorities for the year. This also happened to be the fifth anniversary of working under our strategic plan.

I’m hoping the regulars here can say it with me: “Our members and the public will understand and value unions.”

As with every strategic plan, it needed to be reviewed. We needed to ask ourselves: Is it still relevant? Have we moved closer to achieving it? What about our short-term goals? Have they been achieved? What are our next steps?

The strategic plan was meant to be long-range goal that would take many years to achieve. I mean, think about it – all 25,000 plus of our members understanding who we are and what we do – and valuing that work – let alone the other 4.3 million people who live in Alberta? Because that’s what we’re working towards.

That could take a minute.

Some might say we’ve bitten off a bit more that we can chew. We all live in the real world and we know the bad rap that unions have taken in the past while. I mean anyone who’s opened a paper in the last couple of weeks when this government has made just the tiniest steps toward making labour laws a bit fairer knows the backlash from the business community. If you were to listen to them, you would think the world will pretty much come to the end if we give any worker any rights whatsoever. Sure, it’s ok for them to make millions of dollars and go on weekend golfing trips to Palm Springs because that’s how nature intended it – but god forbid if workers want to be ensured they have a job to come back to after recovering from an illness. Clearly, they say, that’s going to cause massive layoffs and will surely lead to massive business failures across Alberta.

Give me a break. That’s just garbage.

You know it and I know it. And you know who else knows it? They know it.

But so many people around us don’t understand the fundamental unfairness that exists for workers in Alberta. The right wing has done an amazing job over the past 40 years to make us look greedy, lazy and unreasonable. I don’t know about you, but when I think about my co-workers over the course of my career, those are not the words I would choose to describe them.

But we have a big job to do to get the rest of Albertans to see what we see every day.

So, that’s why the big strategic plan. But we knew that, in order to get there, we would have to break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Last September, our board got together at that retreat to take stock – and you know what? Together with you, we have moved the yard sticks a good way down the field.

We knew we would have to start by making some structural changes so that we could leverage our partners and use their knowledge and resources to our benefit. We became full partners with other unions in the various labour organizations that we are part of. Groups like our national union, NUPGE, the national body called the Canadian Labour Congress, our provincial federation – the Alberta Federation of Labour – and our local District Labour Councils across the province. We’re also working with our research and advocacy friends including the Parkland Institute, Public Interest Alberta, Friends of Medicare and Next Up in Calgary and Edmonton. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these groups, you’ll get to know them a little by the end of tomorrow.

We knew that we would have to let our members and the rest of Albertans know who HSAA members are and so we began our imaging campaign that we’re still continuing – and we’re starting to see the results. This also meant being front and centre on issues that matter to our members, which meant creating a better working relationship with the press so that we are the go-to group when things come up in the news.

Most importantly, we realized that if we want our members to understand and value unions, that we needed to work on getting the buy-in from our own local leaders, many of whom are in this room today. Can I get all those who are on Local =Unit executives to stand up please? Let’s give these folks a round of applause please. These folks go above and beyond for all of us. Thank you.

In order to ensure that these local leaders were able to be HSAA’s representatives at their worksites, we needed to invest time and money to give them the tools that they needed. That’s why we created our Local Unit Representative workshops Levels One, Two and Three. If you’re on a local unit executive, you should really make sure that you go through these workshops as they are filled with a lot of really useful information you will need to do your work.

So, back to the strategic plan and the board’s work that began last September. We reviewed the last five years and saw that we managed to get a ton accomplished. Our union is certainly on a new path. But we have a long way to go yet to achieve the ultimate plan so we needed to decide what steps were next.

After a full day of discussions, the board reached a consensus that our next areas of focus for the next five years would be Engagement, Awareness and Advocacy.

Engagement was unanimously seen the first and top priority. We need our members to become the ambassadors of HSAA by encouraging them to become activists and instilling union values in them. As far as we can see, the only way to make this a reality is by allowing our members to have more control over their union at the local level. We’ve already seen the beginnings of this with our steward program where we now have 25 members who have graduated from Level Three, 17 more who are at Level One or Two, and six more who are waiting to begin. We’re all pretty proud of that.

Historically, HSAA has been a full-service union. All matters were decided and handled centrally by the board and our staff. But times have changed and our membership has changed.

For the first time in a generation, the way we settle an impasse at bargaining for most of us has changed. For most of us those disputes were settled by an arbitrator. In terms of bargaining, that’s never something that we prefer because that means that someone else is mandating a final contract that we have no say in. When an arbitrator makes a ruling, nobody gets to vote.

But the Supreme Court changed all that a couple of years ago when it ruled that all workers who are members of a union have the right to strike, provided that the lives, personal safety and health of the public is protected. So now, if it ever comes to a point where we cannot resolve key issues at the bargaining table, we could go on strike or the employer could lock us out.

Now, I’ve heard some of you saying that this means we WILL go on strike. That is far from the truth. But we need to be ready to use that tool if it ever comes to that.

I know that this is a scary prospect for many of us. There are a ton of things that we need to put in place internally to be ready for that and we are going have some of those discussions with you this week. The day after the ruling came down I asked for a copy of our strike manual and we literally had to pull it down from a top shelf in some corner of our building and blow the dust off of it. Work around this issue has taken a lot of our time and concentration in the last year or so.

But no matter how much work and preparation we do at the office, a strike will only be successful if our members believe in it and want it. That means, more of you and your co-workers need to understand and value their union more. Do those words sound familiar to you? That’s right – it’s our strategic plan. More of you need to have a better knowledge of the issues for which we are bargaining. You helped us set those priorities last fall at our bargaining conference and even before that through the survey and through talking with your LROs. It was a great process. And we need to get the word out even further.

There are tables set up in the foyer to help better explain the whole new bargaining process for you and Leanne Alfaro – our Chair of the Constitution, Resolution, Bylaws and Policy committee – is going to walk you through some of this tomorrow. VP Trudy Thomson is going to talk a little more about our plan to fund all this should it happen.

There is a lot to get our heads around and we hope you can be patient. We’re committed to ensuring that you have the information that you will need as we proceed.

In the meantime, we’ve got a great plan in place to help you in your Local Units to begin to engage your fellow members to a greater extent. We’ve already more than doubled your Local Unit funds. We’ve created a staff position that is entirely focused on working with existing Local Units and creating new ones. We’re creating more educational opportunities. And we’re adjusting our focus from being centrally driven to more Local Unit autonomy.

This is going to take some time, but I know that when we get there we’ll be a stronger union for it.

Part of engaging our members and the public is letting them know who we are and what we’re doing. Our staff is working extremely hard every day on your behalf and I know this because I see it. Unfortunately, we don’t do a great job of taking credit for what we do. We don’t tell you about all the grievances we win on your behalf and even less about the cases we resolve without making it a formal process. You don’t know about the hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements that our staff have won on behalf of our members and you have no comparisons about your wages and those who do the same work as you in other provinces.

Sometimes we can’t tell you details because part of getting you the deal means signing non-disclosure agreements.

But, as much as we think we’re communicating with you, we can always do better.

We also need to continue our work in helping Albertans know who you are and that you belong to a union called HSAA. We’ve been working on this project for a number of years now and we’re seeing some progress. But this is a slow process and an expensive one. But we’re convinced that when Albertans know that the health-care professionals that they trust are part of a union called the Health Sciences Association of Alberta that their overall impressions of unions will get better.

Finally, we need to solidify our place as trusted advocates in the minds of our government, central labour organizations, employers and within our various communities so that we can influence public policies in ways that benefit our members. As professionals in health care, far too often we are the workers in the background who do all the work so that the doctors and nurses can take the spotlight – am I right? The trouble with that is that when we don’t take the spotlight, we and our issues get overlooked.

We’re working to change that.

And I can tell you that it is a lot easier to make that change with a friendly government. Let me be clear, since the NDP was elected two years ago we have seen more direct action on things that directly matter to us than in the entire 40-plus years we’d been in existence as a union before.

Starting with the fact that not one of our members who works under their control has been laid off in spite of the worst economic downturns in our history as a union. To understand what might have happened under a different government we just have to look one province to the east where Brad Wall is implementing massive job cuts as well as demanding 3.5-per-cent wage rollbacks.

Oh, and he wants to amalgamate Saskatchewan’s health regions into one large health authority. Anyone here care to tell him what a stellar idea that is?

In contrast, Premier Rachel Notley and her government have chosen to keep us in our jobs, knowing that laying off more public-service workers would just make matters worse, not better. We’re hearing many stories about how our members have now become the sole bread winners in their family after their spouse or partner has been laid off due to low energy prices.

This is a government that not only answers our calls, but who actually reaches out to us and asks us for our input into what they’ve got planned.

You may remember that we were critical of a $17-million cut in this year’s budget. When we, understandably I think, lost our minds about this, they went to work to find out how this happened. To put that into context, $17-million in the province’s $20 billion health budget is kind of like $100 to someone making $100 grand/year. Pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But we all know what $17-million could do on the front lines. It turns out, the cut was an oversight, something that made sense to the pencil-pushers at the time. The Health Minister herself, upon hearing about this, reached out to us to assure us that this would be rectified.

We’ve seen them respond to our request to ban paying donors for blood plasma. We’ve seen them halt a faulty process that would eventually have seen our labs all privatized. We now need them to go an extra step now to ensure that the recommendations of the HQCA are dismissed as a step along the privatization pathway, but I believe they are receptive to that conversation.

Most recently, we’ve finally seen them move on labour law reforms that are really just the most basic moves to bring Alberta almost in line with the rest of the country. And, wow, have the right-wing trolls in the twitterverse ever lit their hair on fire? Just a few basic moves to make relations between labour and employers a little more balanced and as far as they’re concerned we’ve become a socialist paradise.

I need to talk a little about this Bill 17 that is driving the business community right around the bend and address some of the concerns:

This legislation makes changes to Alberta’s Labour Code, which affects unionized workers, and the Employment Standards Act, that makes the basic rules for all Albertan workers. It really takes only baby steps to bring Alberta’s laws into comparison with the rest of Canadian provinces. Because we’ve had such a long line of business-friendly Conservative governments, the scales on labour rights in Alberta have been strongly tilted in favour of employers.

So, when you here our opponents cry foul about things like the supposedly undemocratic automatic certification, you need to know that this is the law of the land in most provinces across Canada. What it says is that if, during an organizing drive, the union gets 65 per cent of the members of the bargaining unit to sign membership cards that they will automatically be certified without a further vote. This is important because we know from experience that what happens in the interim between submitting the cards and a vote, is that the employer begins some pretty heavy-handed tactics. They bully. They send out misinformation. There is not yet a union in place at that point so they can simply fire people at will. Or they can temporarily hire a whole bunch of supporters to impact the outcome of vote. And remember, at that point they have every name of every new union member who has been signed up.

You will hear the right-wing commentators talk about union thugs who go door-to-door to bully members into signing cards against their will.  You know, “union bosses”? You know who that is? Me and Trudy – oh and you guys who stood up earlier as Local Unit leaders. Pretty scary, eh?

So please don’t be fooled by what you’re hearing in the news and what you might read online. This is a whole lot of very practiced anti-union sentiment that is going around right now and we have to be ready to counter it with the truth.

There’s a lot more to Bill 17 than I can get into today. I’m hoping Gil McGowan and Minister Christina Gray will talk a little more about it when they talk to you. But let me just say, from where I sit, this is a great first step for workers.

No, in spite of some of some of the tough times we’ve experienced together, I think we’re pretty fortunate to have the government that we have. And when I look at the alternative – a conservative party led by either Brian Jean or Jason Kenney, I am filled with fear – about what it would mean for our jobs and for public health care in general.

But while we will hope for the best in a couple of years’ time, we’ll prepare for the worst.

Part of that preparation will be helping other workers in Alberta find a home in a union. We know that we’ve grown rapidly as a union. In fact, are there any Therapy Assistants in the crowd? This is the first convention where we are officially able to welcome over 1,300 TAs into our membership. Let me officially welcome you to HSAA. I know you’ll make our union stronger.

But as happy as we are to have you, we have to recognize that you’re with us because of a labour board ruling that said you were more suited with us than with your former union. We like to think that you’re better off here, but we know that your former union does a great job representing its members and want to take nothing away from them.

What we really need to focus on is finding those folks who are doing similar work to all of us, but who have nobody to back them up when things go south with their employer. Who are being paid less because they don’t have the backing of a union to help them negotiate fairer wages. Who have fewer benefits than you and most certainly do not have a defined-benefit pension plan. These are the folks that we need to find and bring into our fold.

I’m pretty sure that over the next several years you will begin to hear about organizing drives in clinics across Alberta where private workers are asking HSAA to represent them for the first time.

I want to shift gears a little bit here and talk about our next couple of days together. Those of you who are regulars at these events will notice a subtle difference – this year for the first time we’re calling it a convention rather than an Annual General Meeting. This is because of the decisions we made together last year splitting our trade union side from our society side, which is now there entirely so that we can own property.

The biggest difference is that an AGM looks backwards with reports about what happened in the past year while a convention is more forward looking, concentrating on what we intend to do in the upcoming year. It gives you the opportunity to tell us what you want us to do and for you to let us know if our plans make sense to you.

It also lets you know how you, as our leaders, fit into our work. We can’t do this without your help. As we go through these next two days, I’m hoping that you’ll be asking yourselves how you’ll be able to bring this info and this momentum back to your co-workers at your worksite.

Because our union has fundamentally changed from one where everything is done for you to one where we do everything together. And this will make us stronger.

This is also why we’re moving to a delegated convention so that there is accountability from and to the members who you represent here. We know we’re asking more of you and we don’t apologize for that. The stakes are getting higher each day as our employers continue to put the squeeze on us and we need to be more united, more unified in our position. Because we know if it’s this tough with a friendly government, we can only imagine what it will be like if that united right gets into power. So, now’s the time for us to come together and form a solid foundation to fight against what may come at us in the future.

So, thank you for all you’re doing. And thank you for what you’re going to do on behalf of your co-workers in the weeks and months to come.

I have a few other thank yous that I need to do as well before I finally sit down and let you get down to work.

I started this speech by mentioning that this has been a year of change. Well, that change could not have happened as smoothly as it did without the help of our staff who literally keep the lights on every day. It is so great to know that no matter what is going on around us, we have an amazing team of folks who are experts at their jobs who work their tails off every day on your behalf. Could I get the staff to stand there in the back. Will you join with me in thanking them for the work that they do?

I also want to thank the board for the hard work that they do behind the scenes. This group of 18 members that you have elected to run our union work extremely hard on your behalf, spending far too much time away from their families and friends because they passionately believe that our workplaces can and should be better places to work. They keep me on my toes, let me tell you, and are instrumental in ensuring that your concerns are heard at our table and taken into account in every decision that we make.

And I must take some time to single one of them out in particular – your vice-president and my co-conspirator, Trudy Thomson. Those of you who know us know that we are nothing alike. I’m a much more of the kind of guy who likes to fly by the seat of my pants. Trudy is a meticulous planner and list maker. Oh my god, without her lists, we could talk for hours at our meetings, but we may not get anything accomplished. So, thank you Trudy. I’d say we’ve made it through alright this first year and I’m looking forward to what we can accomplish together in the future.

So. that’s enough from me for now. It’s time to get down to business. Thanks for being here and let’s start having some fun.