Ronnie Nicolasora

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.”

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 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.

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.”