Today’s healthcare workers are frustrated. Many see the industry in chaos, as working conditions decline and expectations are on the rise. Across the board, healthcare workers are seeking to be heard. Despite mixed social stigma, unions have been a positive force in society; they have the ability to create greater workplace democracy where employees have a collective voice at work and a clear path to equality, fair treatment and economic security.
Healthcare is one of the largest employers in any market and this makes it a particularly attractive battlefield for unions as the industry’s landscape is always changing. Unions have a greater responsibility to prove their value.
SEIU Healthcare is led by Sharleen Stewart, President, Carol McDowell, Executive Vice President and Emanuel “Manny” Carvalho, Secretary-Treasurer. This executive team of officers is elected by the organization’s members. Collectively, they have deep roots in the healthcare industry and bring with them a wealth of expertise and leadership to promote SEIU Healthcare’s core values.
“SEIU Healthcare is primarily focused on healthcare” says Stewart. “We are professional and skilled in this industry. Our board is also diverse in leadership and culture. Because of our structure, we are able to do our business in an efficient and timely manner, which speeds up our decision-making process within the union structure.”
SEIU Healthcare has been standing up for healthcare workers since 1944 and has become a key player in negotiating better wages, benefits, increased job security and safer working conditions while representing the interests of their members through campaigns and lobbying.
“SEIU Healthcare represents more than 55,000 healthcare workers in Ontario,” says McDowell. “We’ve made it our mission to ensure the voices of frontline workers are heard and respected at the political level as we work with the Ontario provincial government to strengthen the public healthcare system.” As part of a two-million member international union in the United States and Puerto Rico, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has the numbers and experience to effect change.
“Our first priority is to ensure that the work that of members is recognized in a board spectrum of roles,” says McDowell. “Unions operate very much like a business; we are mandated to serve our members. We are professional and skilled and we know our business. We see ourselves as experts in the healthcare industry which is what we are specialized in.”
Due to significant investments in organizing, the membership of SEIU Healthcare increased by 45% in the last decade alone, making it the largest healthcare union in the country. SEIU Healthcare commits itself not only to workers’ rights, social justice and equity but protecting and improving Canada’s publicly administered universal healthcare system.
SEIU Healthcare contributes to healthcare policy through their work with government and other stakeholders by representing the interests and expertise of their members. “We have an opportunity to have a conversation with our membership on a very broad level across the province to discuss what’s happening in the economy or politics in general as opposed to organizations that may have a more fractured structure,” says Carvalho. “We speak to our members across the province as one voice and are consolidated in our approach to decision-making which is a real advantage for us.”
Since their founding in 1921, SEIU has made significant headway as an international union. “We have the first international female president” says Stewart “We have tremendous representation as 90% of SEIU Healthcare’s membership is women. We are also one of the few unions that represent low-income workers and support some of the most vulnerable workers where we have made significant positive breakthroughs.”
Nearly half of the Ontario government’s budget goes towards healthcare. “In addition to all of the amazing history that we have over the years, one of our most important focuses is on healthcare and its relationship to the economy,” says Carvalho. “For over 70 years SEIU Healthcare workers have been delivering frontline care to families. Our experiences give us a unique understanding of how to deliver quality care while recognizing the serious fiscal challenges that face our province.”
One of SEIU Healthcare’s key developments is educating their members. Through programs like the “Member Organizing Program” and “Member Leadership and Action Program,” members not only gain insight into workers’ rights and politics, they are given the confidence to become agents of change. They work together to form alliances with the government, community organizations, advocacy groups and labour councils. SEIU Healthcare “encourages our members to become active leaders in workplaces, communities, and politics. There are several committees that guide campaigns and bring awareness to current issues,” says Stewart.
The Women’s Committee, for example, works to improve the working and economic conditions of women in their union. “We’re proud of the women’s committee for the awareness they raise around pay equity and women’s rights,” says Carvalho. “All of our committees do amazing work. One of the strategic objectives that we set out for our membership in committees is to focus on practical solutions. When we work with these committees, we come up with ideas that we can somehow spin into policy that we can take to other stakeholders.”
SEIU Healthcare’s focus for 2015 is simple and continues to be making their members’ lives better, secure jobs and be solutions-oriented. “The current government will be looking to reduce a $10-billion deficit, there is going to be some pressure there,” says Carvalho “The increase of retiring baby-boomers places a huge demand on healthcare services. It’s imperative for us to plan for that future.”
SEIU Healthcare is looking to partner with the government and seeks their support to address the shift in demographics with homecare being a great opportunity to offset some of the expenses incurred from traditional healthcare. They also aim to bridge the gap between less-talked about issues such as mental health and young adults with physical and mental afflictions by adopting a more wholesome approach to the healthcare system and utilizing every healthcare professional to their full scope of practice.
“SEIU Healthcare is a union moving with the 21st century as a non-confrontational and non-argumentative organization,” says Stewart. “We are doing things differently than you might expect.”SEIU Healthcare chooses to engage their members and empower them to represent themselves. Beyond tradition, they have adopted more creative means to attain results.
“We have an obligation to participate and come up with solutions,” says Carvalho “It’s about having members at the forefront of the decision-making process.”