The Professional - September 2017 - Volume 43 - Issue 3
In this issue
Message from the President
End of summer, record-breaking wildfire season, a new chapter for the PEA
By Frank Kohlberger
A New Chapter
Meet Ronnie Nicholasora from the Hospital Employees' Staff Union
By Jessica Natalie Woollard
What Happens to Member Survey Responses
By Scott McCannell
In a record-breaking wildfire season, our members step up
By Jackie Wong
Scholarship Winners 2017
Meet the winners of our annual scholarship competition
By Emma Wright
As the summer ends and members settle back into work, the new government of BC—an historic partnership between the NDP and Green Party—is implementing changes that signal exciting things for the workforce of BC. These include an increase to the minimum wage, a review of professional reliance, the elimination of tuition fees for certain adult basic education programs, and much more.
Many of us are still reeling from the forest fires that raged across the province during the summer. Several of our members were affected either professionally or personally by the wildfires. Their stories are profiled on page 10.
In this issue, we also learn more about the PEA’s newest chapter, the Hospital Employees’ Staff Union (HESU), through a profile of HEU staff representative Ronnie Nicolasora on page 4.
During the summer we held our annual member survey. The surveys are an opportunity for members to provide feedback on how the PEA is doing. The information we receive informs our planning and helps to ensure the PEA is working as effectively as it can for its members. The results of the survey can be viewed on page 8.
I hope you will take some time to read through this issue, and that you find the articles to be of interest. Finally, as always, let us know if you have any comments.
INTRODUCING THE PEA'S NEW CHAPTER, THE HOSPITAL EMPLOYEES' STAFF UNION
Words Jessica Natalie Woollard
In 1981, Ronnie Nicolasora, just 16 years old, started getting involved in political activity in his hometown of Miagao, Iloilo, Philippines. It was the year Ferdinand Marcos’s reign as dictator under martial law ended, but the political violence and corruption wasn’t over; rather, a new Marcos regime was about to begin. Marcos had won the first presidential election in more than a decade, and more brutality was in store for the people of the Philippines.
“A lot of people lost their lives. It was difficult to watch,” says Nicolasora, who remained active in political campaigns for the next five years. “I saw first-hand how people can be oppressed, and how they don’t have the ability to fight for themselves.”
Living through such oppression and violence helped form Nicolasora’s belief that everyone has rights that deserve to be respected, and everyone has a voice to fight for social justice.
After completing a philosophy degree in 1987 in IIoilo, Nicolasora emigrated to British Columbia, sponsored by family members who had come to North America a few years earlier. “Part of me was sad because after I left, there was a change in the government,” he says. “I had a great hope that the Philippines would be transformed into a better society because of that change. Today, I can say that didn’t happen.”
Desire to Empower People
In Canada, Nicolasora found he was able to channel his passion for empowering people to stand up for their rights into labour relations work. He gained a unionized position as a laundry worker at Burnaby Regional Hospital, where his colleagues quickly recognized his abilities as a leader. In 1992, Nicolasora was encouraged to become chair of the BC Hospital Employees’ Union (now the Hospital Employees’ Union, or HEU).
It was a “baptism of fire,” he recalls. Within a few months of Nicolasora taking on the chair position, the union was on strike. “In hindsight, it was a very difficult time, but I would not change it for a minute. I learned a lot. I became what I am right now.”
Over the next decade, Nicolasora remained involved in the HEU, holding various positions and taking advantage of opportunities for advancement. He served as chair, shop steward, member of the union’s provincial bargaining committee and member of the provincial executive. In early 2002, the Liberal government of BC passed Bill 29, the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act, which allowed the province to tear up its contracts with the HEU. Key parts of Bill 29 have since been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada, but at the time, more than eight thousand unionized health care workers in BC lost their jobs, Nicolasora was one of them.
Unemployed for a time, Nicolasora was contemplating going back to school when, in 2005, he was invited to interview for a staff-representative position with the HEU. He got the job.
“The rest is history,” he says. “Things happen for a reason. Twelve years later, I can say I’m still fulfilled with the work I do.”
The HEU is the union for 44,000 support staff who work in all areas of the health care system—acute care hospitals, residential care facilities, community group homes, outpatient clinics, medical labs and First Nations health agencies. They are administrative assistants, maintenance workers, care aids, technicians of all kinds, unit clerks and porters, explains Janine Brooker, an HEU bargaining representative and president of the Hospital Employees’ Staff Union (HESU) chapter executive.
The HEU employs around 150 staff at its seven offices in Burnaby, Vancouver, Victoria, Comox, Kelowna, Prince George and Nelson. They are the lawyers, communications officers, information technology staff and union representatives who support the large membership of the HEU, assisting them with grievances and employee rights issues, representing them in Workers Compensation Board and long-term disability matters, and advising them about the collective agreement.
These employees make up the HESU, the newest chapter of the PEA. HESU had been a member of UNIFOR until November 2016, Brooker explains, when UNIFOR restructured and stripped the members of a number of unions, all formerly affiliated with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, of their charter rights and forced them out of the union.
Seeking a New Union
In need of a new union to represent them, the HESU executive asked their members what they would like to have in a union. “[Our members] said they wanted to be in a union that represented professionals and was part of the larger labour movement,” says Brooker. “They wanted a union that was affiliated with the BC Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour Council, and they wanted their union to be socially conscious.”
The ability to maintain their autonomy within a large union was also important to members, Brooker adds. The PEA fit the bill, and in May, the HESU membership voted to join.
“We were impressed with their professionalism. PEA won the vote on what union to join by more than 90 per cent. They blew everyone else right out of the water,” Brooker says.
Brooker and Nicolasora say they are looking forward to their future with the PEA. “My impression is that PEA will be very supportive of the goals of the HESU membership and what we are trying to achieve,” Nicolasora says. “We both want to help change the political landscape to give workers the ability to pursue economic freedoms and rights.”
As a youth in the Philippines, Nicolasora witnessed what happens when people are oppressed, their civil liberties stripped and their human rights revoked. He learned from what he saw and vowed to fight for the rights of people throughout his life.
“Activism is not a spectator sport. If we want to make things better, we cannot just stand on the sidelines and let other people do it,” he says. “If we would like change to happen, then people must be active and try their very best to involve everyone.”
Moving to Canada meant Nicolasora left the brutality of political violence and injustice behind. But he found a cause to fight for in Canada—worker rights.
For Nicolasora, every day of his work at the HESU presents an opportunity to help improve the conditions of hospital workers in the HEU.
“When I have to leave this world, I really hope I will have made it better.”
WHAT HAPPENS TO MEMBER SURVEY RESPONSES?
Words Scott McCannell
This summer, 30 per cent of PEA members completed the annual PEA membership survey. This is a six per cent increase over the 2016 rate, so thanks to those who participated!
So What Happens with the Results?
Members’ survey responses and comments are not put on the shelf. Rather, the responses are analyzed by PEA staff and compiled into a detailed report for review by the Association Executive. The report includes quantitative results for each question, a summary of themes from the qualitative questions, and the full text of each and every one of PEA members’ comments. The survey results are then used to inform the Association’s Executive annual strategic planning exercise. Efforts are made to ensure the PEA strategic plan continues to maintain member satisfaction, as well as setting out initiatives that will address priority issues and concerns.
The survey comprises a series of core satisfaction-related questions—a regular feature going back to the early ’90s—as well as targeted questions that assist in achieving specific objectives. For example, in recent years we have added questions to help us understand how best to engage our diverse membership or better meet the needs of young workers. This year, we reduced the overall number of questions, while adding two new questions: one about the value members see in the PEA and one about what the PEA’s vision should look like for the next five years. The questions and their results will be an important part of this year’s strategic planning.
Results from the surveys are sometimes reviewed with chapter executives and bargaining committees for their chapter-specific planning purposes. They also are used as a scorecard to assess the PEA’s performance and the performance of the executive director. The core questions used for measuring PEA performance include member satisfaction with regard to collective bargaining and collective agreements, communication and overall member satisfaction.
The results from this year show some modest improvement in overall satisfaction and in members’ satisfaction with bargaining and communication. Members are less satisfied with their collective agreements, and many conveyed concerns about wages and benefits in their comments. This year, we plan to start bargaining-preparation discussions with members much earlier than in past years, an initiative that will hopefully lead to improved collective agreements.
Members’ survey comments also help us to understand chapter-specific issues, such as the ongoing concern over government policies that promote the use of outside professionals instead of employing our Government Licensed Professionals. The members’ comments also establish clear priorities such as continuing to promote professionals and the work they do.
The member survey results will be posted on the PEA website after the PEA Executive Meeting on September 26, 2017.
Into the Fire
IN A RECORD-BREAKING WILDFIRE SEASON, PEA MEMBERS STEP UP
Words Jackie Wong
It’s been a hot summer and the worst wildfire season in British Columbia history. The wildfire season that began on April 1, 2017, surpassed the record set in 1958 when BC saw 8,550 square kilometres of forest destroyed by wildfires. By August 22 of this year, wildfires had burned through a record-breaking 12,312 square kilometres of forest land in BC.
As the summer wound down, the ferocity of the fires showed few signs of letting up. According to the BC Wildfire Service, on the Chilcotin Plateau, more than 19 wildfires merged into a single blaze that covered an area of 4,670 square kilometres. The fire reached to 60 kilometres west of Quesnel and 60 kilometres northwest of Williams Lake.
The destruction was both wide ranging and costly. “We’re tracking $389 million over the February budget estimate right now, and we’re only halfway through the season,” BC finance minister Carole James told the Canadian Press in August. That early estimate far surpasses comparable costs for fighting wildfires in 2016 ($129 million), 2015 ($277 million) and 2014 ($298 million).
“We’re into record territory for the number of hectares burned and the overall response,” Jim Forbes told The Professional. An agrologist with the Ministry of Agriculture in Kamloops, Forbes is one of three regional coordinators responsible for delivering services through the ministry’s Emergency Management Program.
He is also one of 19 PEA members in the Ministry of Agriculture who worked long shifts throughout the summer at Provincial Regional Emergency Operation Centres (PREOCs) and regional district Emergency Operations Centres (EOCs) across the province. Emergency Management British Columbia, the coordinating agency for the BC government’s emergency management activities, activates the centres when emergencies such as wildfires or floods occur.
On the late-August morning when we spoke on the phone, Forbes was getting ready to put his work on hold, pack his bags and leave for Williams Lake, where he would spend the following week and the Labour Day weekend working in the Cariboo Regional District Emergency Operations Centre (EOC).
This would mark his third rotation on the ministry’s emergency management roster, which relies on PEA members to direct their professional skills toward tackling BC’s wildfires.
Desperate Times, Extraordinary Measures
A day spent working in emergency response can last over 12 hours, and the work is unrelenting. With so many wildfires affecting ranchers and livestock, agriculture personnel like Forbes play key roles in advising and serving as a communications bridge between EOCs, Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) range staff and Emergency Management BC, all while assisting ranchers dealing with lost forage and infrastructure and the sudden expense of having to relocate their livestock out of harm’s way.
Forbes and his colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture represent just some of the PEA members mobilized in BC’s emergency wildfire response. An estimated 150 to 200 members in FLNRORD Range Management are also working in wildfire emergency response. Forbes says he also personally knows at least two PEA members who were forced by evacuation orders to leave their homes, which were in dangerous proximity to the fires.
Forbes says he wishes that the exceptional efforts contributed by PEA members over the summer could be recognized through greater compensation. In particular, he would like to see the deputy minister responsible for the Provincial Emergency Program revisit the policy of providing an hour of leave for each hour of overtime worked. “The floor set by the Employment Standards Act for private industry—and enjoyed by our BCGEU colleagues in their agreement—provides for overtime to be paid out or taken as leave at time and a half over eight hours a day, and double time for anything over 12 hours in a day.”
The GLP agreement provides a seven per cent stipend for overtime and standby during the normal course of business, as opposed to overtime pay for hours worked.
“That,” says Forbes, “does not provide the financial recognition that would sufficiently reflect the extra hours of work and disruption of our personal lives during extraordinary emergency events.”
Throughout the wildfire season, the demand for emergency management services has exceeded the number of people available to provide them. Carl Withler, an agrologist and GLP chapter chair based in Kelowna, observes how chronic staff shortages resulted in employees receiving only a week’s notice before being dispatched out of their home communities to work in emergency centres dispersed around the province.
“The thing we have to be aware of is that people are running double duty,” Withler says. “They’re working extended hours. It’s not uncommon to work 10 days straight, 12 to 14 hours a day. They’re dislocated from their friends and family and support networks. And the work that they normally do doesn’t go away while they’re gone. It waits for them. It piles up.”
Withler is preparing for his first shift on the emergency management roster in Williams Lake in early September. “I got extremely lucky and unlucky this spring,” he says. “I got exempted from the roster until August 31. I have other project work to do, but a number of our staff members, they’ve been two and three times through the roster already. That’s how short we are.”
The Road to Recovery
Withler’s work in Williams Lake will mark a return to the place where he was raised. “I’m familiar with the landscape of the area and am entirely sympathetic,” he says. The devastation to community landmarks and gathering places has been overwhelming. “There is a little place to the west of Williams Lake called Hanceville. So if you’re in the Alexis Creek country of Williams Lake, or the Nemaiah Valley area, it’s one of those locations where everybody knows where it is, and you meet there. There’s a gas station and a little coffee shop and not much else. It’s gone. It is completely burnt out. There is no Hanceville anymore. That’s the catastrophic effect of these fires right now.”
Withler is eager to support the wildfire efforts in his work on behalf of the PEA. “There are just a plethora of people in the background with their finger in every hole in the dyke, trying to make it as normal for the public of BC as possible during very trying times,” he says.
He anticipates a heavy workload as the autumn begins, including a large volume of logistical work. “Hundreds of kilometres of fence have been burned along Highway 20, for example. How do you start to find the posts, how do you get the contractors in place, who’s going to pay for it, how do we tender the contracts, all the appropriate stuff? And people in Alberta will donate hay. Well, how do you get trucks together to go and get the hay to bring it back for the livestock that requires hay through the winter?” he asks.
Recovery efforts are urgent, but given the volume of destruction caused by the wildfires, they’ll take time. Jim Forbes expects they will take longer than anticipated. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he says. “It’s not going to be rebuilt in a day, either.”
Returning things to normal after a record-breaking wildfire season will require an extraordinary effort.
The loss from the wildfires feels overwhelming at times, Withler says. But the hard work and long hours logged by PEA members are contributing to restoring a sense of dignity and humanity among people living in circumstances of exceptional upheaval.
“There are hundreds of thousands of background hours that go into supporting the activities of front-line staff,” Withler says.
“The astronauts get all the glory—they’re the people going to the moon—but it takes all the support staff underneath them to actually send them there.”
Scholarship Winners 2017
Words by Emma Wright
The PEA has been providing education scholarships to PEA members and their families who are pursuing post-secondary education for over 24 years. Scholarships are awarded based on the results of our annual essay contest.
Each year, an essay topic is chosen by the PEA Education Committee. This year’s essay question asked candidates to identify some of the challenges faced by young workers today that were not faced by previous generations, and to discuss how labour unions can transform to better serve the needs of younger union members.
This year’s scholarship winners are Jordan Mulvihill, Chloe Woo and Sebastian Huebel. Their essays explored cost of living, work-life balance and health care issues specific to young workers.
The cost of living—especially for housing and childcare—was a theme picked up on by all of the three winners. Sebastian Huebel explained that, while the current housing crisis isn’t something unions can directly help with, they can provide “assistance to supplement child care costs.” He argues that unions should be proactive about including assistance opportunities as part of their collective agreements.
Woo’s essay addressed the challenges faced by young workers in the workplace “Young workers will pave the way to the future, so by investing in them, we can invest in the new world,” Woo wrote. She suggests that unions should fight for wage increases that match inflation.
Mulvihill’s essay explored the age discrimination that young workers face, noting that some employers seem to want young and enthusiastic workers but have unrealistic expectations about their level of experience.
Congratulations to all of the winners.
Read the essays and view the profiles of each winner online at pea.org/resources/scholarship-winners