Creative energy for a better workplace

The Report: February / March 2000 vol.21 num.1


Most stewards agree: the work as a union rep is rewarding, butthe workload can be intense. That was the answer stewards gave HSA in a 1994 surveydesigned to assess the needs of HSA activists.

As a result, the union made a decision later that year to implement theOrganizing Model at three facilities.

Current Organizing Model facilities
  • Burnaby Hospital
  • Chilliwack Hospital
  • Kelowna General Hospital
  • Lions Gate Hospital
  • Prince George Hospital
  • St. Pauls Hospital
  • Surrey Memorial Hospital
  • Vancouver Hospital
  • Vernon Jubilee Hospital

For more about the Organizing Model, see "Across the Province."

What is theOrganizing Model?
The Organizing Model of Unionism emerged in 1988 from an American Federation of Labourconference that brought together union leaders and activists to develop new strategies formobilizing union members throughout the labour movement.

The Organizing Model seeks to revitalize local unions and to work withlocal activists in developing new tools to deal with workplace problems. The AFL-CIOsought to differentiate between something they called the "Servicing Model" ofunionism and the newly emerging "Organizing Model" of unionism.

The "Servicing Model" involves unions "trying to helppeople by solving problems for them," as opposed to the "Organizing Model,"which works to involve members in developing and implementing solutions.

To Maryann Abbs, HSAs Education Officer, the Organizing Model isa way of going back to the roots of the union movement. "Unions are about peoplegaining power within their workplaces and their communities," she said. "TheOrganizing Model helps us focus on developing peoples power and creativity in theworkplace, by utilizing a wide range of strategies in dealing with various problems theymight be facing.

"Organizing Model might be a confusing name ... otherways to describe it might be Participatory Unionism, or the Culture of Solidarity. One ofthe goals is to have a workplace where if something unfair is happening, people recognizethat its unfair, and are able to address it right away."

For example, Abbs described a hypothetical situation where a co-workeris being harassed by a manager or a doctor. "In a good work environment, thispersons colleagues would be able to recognize the harassing behaviour, and also knowhow to step in to stop it ... which doesnt necessarily have to involve thetraditional grievance process."

Why do we needit?
When sonographer Chris Marioni started work at Vernon Jubilee Hospital five years ago, hewas barely aware of any union participation among his 174 fellow HSA members.

"It seemed no one understood their rights under the collectiveagreement. Management was getting away with a lot, and no one was fighting," he said."I couldnt even get a copy of the contract at my orientation."

Marioni soon found that the chapters Chief Steward, Randy Niro,was struggling to juggle members various issues along with a job in extended carethat often took him outside the workplace. "He was doing what he could, but this is alarge facility. Its too much work for one person."

When it became clear that the situation wasnt getting better,Marioni immediately offered to help. "I asked Randy if I could become a steward andjoined up right away," he said. "I did my training, learning about how thecontract worked, and from there I started learning to advocate for others."

However, he could see that this still wasnt enough. "We werestill realizing that two stewards werent enough. I started to wonder where this wasgoing to go, and how much longer I could carry on like this ... more and more peoplewere recognizing me as a steward, and approaching me with their issues. I guess because mywork is on-site, I was more visible in the cafeteria and other places around thehospital."

Randy Niro agrees that widening the focus has re-energized the HSAmembership at Vernon Jubilee Hospital. "Before, all we were able to do was put outfires. We werent able to do anything proactive to advocate for the union. Now, withregular labour / management meetings, a lot of the problems are being addressed beforethey start, and more people understand what the unions about," he said.

"People are realizing that youre not a bad employee if youfile a grievance; youre just asking for what is given in the contract. People areunderstanding now that sometimes you have to file a grievance to let the employer knowwhat our rights are."

How do we getstarted?
While he was struggling with his steward workload, Marioni learned about the OrganizingModel at a chapter meeting with Region 8 Director Maureen Ross and Labour RelationsOfficer Lis Pedersen.

"I remembered the idea being presented at Steward Training I, butI now wanted to know more about it," he said. "They explained what it was, andthat there was a budget for the union to help us get it organized."

The two stewards immediately applied to have Vernon considered as apotential "Organizing Model" facility, and were told they had been brought intothe program just as job action heated up last winter.

Although the winters repeated calls for job action ... firstfor the nurses, then for paramedical professionals ... made for a very busy time forNiro and Marioni, it provided ideal opportunities to talk to members about their ideas forexpanding union representation for the membership at Vernon.

"It was a great time for us to meet everybody, and get peopleinvolved," Marioni said. "We went around describing the Organizing Modelconcept, telling people we needed more representation for this to work, and asking them iftheyd be willing to help out. Since people had been attending strike votes and werefeeling proactive, we had a great response."

How does itwork?
As job action wound down, Leila Lolua and Lis Pedersen from the union office met withinterested members to provide initial support and information for the expanding stewardteam. "We asked for one person from every department. I told people about how thisbenefits workers, and asked them for their ideas about how we could make this fun,"Marioni said.

"Eventually, people started getting psyched up about it."

Twelve stewards came forward at the next election, who then workedtogether on developing an interlocking, truly supportive steward network, as well as new,creative ways to deal with workplace issues.

"Weve taken one steward from each department and asked themto be in charge of an area outside their department," Marioni said. "Thatsworked really well."

Marioni says if a member is not familiar with the steward for theirdepartment, the contact steward helps the member get in touch, sometimes with the help ofa large photo on the union bulletin board.

"For example, the steward who works in the lab would handle issuesthat arise in medical imaging. They can also be a contact and resource for the steward whois dealing with issues in the lab. This means that if theres a grievance,theres one seward from outside the department handling it, and that steward also hassomeone to back them up who is familiar with the issues."

The steward team at Vernon also holds a dinner meeting once a month,shortly before each scheduled labour / management meeting. In addition, Marioni said thisteam approach means members at Vernon can feel secure knowing that there are enoughrepresentatives so that stewards can be present at all important meetings, and beavailable to take part in various committees.

Does it make adifference?
Marioni has nothing but praise for his fellow stewards, and credits the Organizing Modelwith allowing him to continue on as steward. "I dont think I could have kept onbeing steward without this support," he said. "I couldnt have done it. TheOrganizing Model has been of tremendous value."

Medical Technologist Neil Lalach says he got involved because of therenewed energy at Vernon Jubilee. "Without the Organizing Model, I was in no positionto become a steward," he said. "I didnt feel vulnerable any more, and itwas a opportunity to step forward and speak up. I wouldnt have done that if therewerent so much emphasis on trying to get lots of people involved, and spread out thework. Its easier than we think. All it takes is a little time and effort."

Lalach is clear-sighted about the teams objectives. "We wantto do whats fair, and just follow the collective agreement. When youve got agood group like weve got, it works really well. Its rewarding ...especially when you can see that its not impossible."

Brenda Richards, a Health Records Administrator, agrees. "From myperspective, being a union representative is helping to ensure that the process isfollowed. Its not an antagonistic role; I feel that its a role in which I canhelp people in following the rules and processes as laid out in the collectiveagreement."

Richards was previously involved as a steward, but decided to get backinvolved at the first Organizing Model meeting. And she can see the difference."Before, we spent a lot of time calling HSA," she said. "Now we workinternally and try to solve problems here first with the information we have ... withthe support of the union office, rather than feeling like we need to call for everything.

"I think its really important for people to see things in aproblem solving method. Its important that we each know the collective agreement,and support each other in that knowledge."

Social Worker Murray Shaw is another experienced steward who hasrenewed his involvement in the union. Shaw has a broad, insightful view of what theOrganizing Model means, both to members at his facility, and to the labour movement as awhole.

Shaw was the Chief Steward for 10 years before stepping down in 1989 totake on more clinical responsibilities at the hospital. It is clear he has given muchthought to the difference he is seeing now at his facility, and is well aware of the widerissues.

"There are two things going on right now that could have somenegative impact on our members: regionalization and program management. Regionalizationhas caused a great deal of alienation, because our members now feel they always have tostruggle to make sure their voices are heard at higher management levels," he said.

"The other issue is program management. The way its beingbrought into Vernon, departments are being dissipated and people are ending up as membersof functional units, which means individual disciplines are losing their voice," hesaid. "Without departments, people could begin to lose their professional identity,especially when theyre new grads. This is a big threat to health care, andcontributes to poor morale.

"At Vernon, we have a large core of very dedicated, professionalworkers whove been here a long time. Theyre good at what they do, andtheyre dedicated to providing the best possible care. Altruism isnt toostrong a word to describe their dedication. Before the Organizing Model, these people werefeeling pretty alienated ... theyve been feeling unheard, and theyve had tobe dealing with cutback for a long time. Its not surprising that they were feelingdiscouraged."

Shaw says the Organizing Models team approach is "the way togo." "This is what union work should be," he said. "Somethinghas shifted. HSA people are beginning to talk to each other about our work and what we do.

"I really like the feel of the people who are involved with theOrganizing Model," he said. "They know whats going on. They have pride inthat. Its especially evident that this core group of stewards is focused, and clear.They realize that they are speaking for fellow workers ... fellow professional workers.

Is iteffective?
Just one year after implementing the Organizing Model at Vernon Jubilee Hospital, memberscan see and feel the difference in their workplace. Chief Steward Chris Marioni is veryexcited about the new positive energy at the hospital ... and his enthusiasm iscatching. "Members in the hospital definitely feel more empowered," he said."Union morale has increased dramatically. People feel encouraged to take a stand whenthey see problems, and they know that theres someone to advocate for them if theyneed it.

"People are realizing that were here. Theyre notrolling over and giving in anymore. They dont have to."

Marioni says the regular labour / management meetings have been a greathelp. "The employer now knows that if theres a problem, its not justgoing to go away. Were not aggressive. Thats not the point. We just sit downwith them and discuss issues about the collective agreement, which is a document bothparties have agreed to.

"I think its working really well."

For more information about the Organizing Model, please contact Education Officer Maryann Abbs at the HSAOffice.