In 2016 and 2017, Health Sciences Association of BC (HSABC), the union providing modern health care by representing more than 18,000 professionals working in health care and community social services around BC, was facing down a struggle familiar to labour organizations across North America.
HSA was trying to grow their union, build a more engaged membership, and build their power to advocate for their members. In a bid to re-energize and engage their membership, they decided to use back to basics community organizing inside the union.
As they were strategizing how to launch a campaign within the union, they decided to pilot a different training program for their members. “We were looking at our existing education and training programs,” says HSA President Val Avery, “We teach union activists how to be good shop stewards, but we’ve moved away from traditions of structured organizing and building power, and away from campaigns that centred member engagement and ownership over the union.”
"Working with Organize BC brought new ideas, practices and methods to our member organizing and training programs. The extensive experience of the facilitators, detailed case studies and strong foundational research completely resonated with the workshop participants. We've seen incredible levels of member activism following the trainings and it has a direct connection to the skills they learned from Organize BC."
Membership Services Coordinator, Organizing and Member Engagement at Health Sciences Association of BC
In June 2016, HSA brought in Organize BC to train their members in community organizing practices.
A call went out to members for a new program for leadership and organizing training. Within a week, they had over 100 applications. In the end, several times more people applied than there was space in the training (and HSA added four more in the fall, more on that later). Over 2 days, thirty HSA members learned how to use storytelling on campaigns, build relationships with the fellow members, structure leadership teams, strategize on campaigns and take action.
“I knew we were on to something when there was such a quick buy-in and appetite for this kind of training,” said Jonny Sopotiuk, HSA Organizing and Communications Officer, “Over half of the members at the training were new. We’d never seen them engage with the union before, and they were demanding new ways to get involved. That’s what told us we needed to do a series of training in the fall to launch our campaign.”
Over the summer, organizing and communications staff at HSABC were designing a campaign that would engage and empower their members. They started out asking their members what their biggest challenges were as health science professionals and community social service workers. HSA represents hundreds of different professions, from social workers to radiation therapists, from pharmacists to early childhood educators. When they put the survey out, it wasn’t clear their diverse membership would coalesce around one challenge.
The results from an email survey showed a clear winner: with a stunning 6148 responses from HSA members (over 30% of the membership), the top issue was workload and shortages: excessive workload put patients at risk, and insufficient staffing levels left HSA members stretched and overworked. HSA members were tired of it.
The Workload Campaign strategy is simple: empower activists to talk to fellow HSA members about the workload issue. Where they find there is excessive workload issues, document it and use the power of their collective agreement to solve the problem, with possible solutions including hiring more staff, reorganizing workplaces and improving health and safety measures.
In September, Organize BC trained 60 HSA members around BC. At four trainings in New Westminster, Nanaimo, Kelowna and Prince George members were briefed on the Workload Campaign’s strategy, and given tools to implement its tactics at their worksites.
In Kelowna and Prince George, Organize BC trainers and HSA staff took members on site visits: armed with freshly trained skills in community organizing and Timbits, activists briefed on-shift HSA members in hospital scrubs on their breaks and over lunch. In conversation after conversation, newly trained HSA member-organizers found huge buy-in from fellow members who faced workload issues and wanted it to stop.
In the year since, the HSA Workload Campaign has engaged thousands of members. The 2016 HSA Convention saw a huge increase in attendance, many from Workload Campaign outreach. And they’ve seen how the Workload Campaign is setting them up for a stronger position in the next round of bargaining: armed with data on workload issues, HSA members can win a stronger contract and make meaningful changes in their workplaces. The impact of the campaign has been so successful that the Union has invested more resources in organizing and member engagement, including an increase in dedicated staff.
HSA made an intentional decision to bring in trainers from outside the union. “Having Organize BC as an external organization in training development and facilitation resonated with our members in important ways. Organize BC are the experts and they bring with them innovative community oriented organizing programs that are inspiring, energizing and effective.” Jonny told us. Having external experts gave the Workload Campaign the credibility it took to help catalyze the cultural shift back towards member-engaged organizing.
The trainings have had a major impact on HSA members, beyond the workload campaign as well. “Stewards often feel they need to be the experts when they don’t have all the answers they can lose confidence and can become disengaged in the work. They aren’t always sure they are doing the right thing.” Jonny told us, “The way the Organize BC training was structured to tell their story and speak from their experience gave them permission to show up and be themselves without having to be the expert. It allows them to be themselves and inspire others to get involved.”
In one example, John Hindle a Respiratory Therapist and new steward had attended the first training in June, commented that he became much more confident advocating for himself and his co-workers. He was sitting in on a meeting with an HSA member and their manager, who started being abusive to the member. John said ‘If you continue treating our member this way, I’ll walk out and the meeting is over. We can move the meeting to the union head office’. John said that going through the Organize BC training gave him the confidence to do that.
The Workload Campaign was so successful that HSA launched phase 2 in 2017 providing more tools for members to get involved, a process to collect patient impact stories and dedicated labour relations staff to file and process hundreds of grievances covering thousands of members.
Marjan Szlivka, a Physiotherapist and new union steward from the Fraser Valley, saw lasting impacts on her newfound activism and in life. “The biggest impact that the training had on me was in developing my confidence as a complete introvert, to go have conversations with people who were complete strangers. I now had the tools (both in terms of skills, in having a reason to talk to people: the Workload Campaign and the knowledge of the principles of organizing and how engaging members was important to our organization) to reach out to members in departments where I’d never been before.”
Marjan knows she’s a better Chief Steward because of the training she received through Organize BC. And she’s seeing the results with a massive increase in the level of member engagement at her worksite.
“Members who’ve never been to a union meeting are coming out to meetings about being politically active in the provincial election and they’re taking an interest in bargaining. Individual conversations with members snowballed with the help of a growing steward team, into a whole site that’s more engaged with their union.”
Since the Workload Campaign first trainings, HSA and Organize BC continue to partner to support HSA members. HSA regularly sends its member activists and staff to Organize BC programs to continually invest in their leadership: Digital Campaigning, Inclusive Movement-Building and Organizing: People, Power, Change. And at Organize BC, we’re using what we learned working with HSA to help other unions run effective campaigns.