A History of Championing Healthcare Workers
SEIU Healthcare represents more than 60,000 healthcare workers in Ontario, and we have championed improvements in healthcare for nearly 75 years. In 1944, we organized Canada’s ﬁrst hospital local at Toronto General Hospital, which marked an important step toward becoming the strong healthcare union we are today. The next year, we established our first chapter in Ontario.
In 1950, our struggle to certify workers at Victory Hospital in London, Ont., led to an important amendment in the Ontario Labour Relations Act (OLRA) to include city employees. We led the charge for the Ontario Government to make another change to the OLRA in 1964; one that ensures due process in arbitration for disputes with hospital workers.
In the 1970s, under our new name, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), we began organizing nursing homes throughout Ontario.
We won two major labour decisions in 1984 that still form the basis of all arbitration and Ontario Labour Relations Board decisions regarding the contracting out of work.
In the 1990s, we achieved several victories including establishing pension plans for thousands of nursing home workers and passing legislation for the right to strike for essential service workers.
In 2004, six SEIU locals voted to amalgamate healthcare and community service members to form one provincial local, SEIU Local 1, resulting in a unified organization that is dedicated to improving the working lives of healthcare workers and protecting the public healthcare system.
That same year, Sharleen Stewart was appointed the Canadian vice-president by SEIU International, and she was the first Canadian woman to sit on the SEIU International Executive Board. Sharleen has been SEIU Healthcare’s President for nearly two decades.
In 2012, SEIU Local 1 Canada became the ﬁrst healthcare union in Canada to receive automatic recognition from a Provincial Labour Relations Board. A year later, we were rebranded to our current name, SEIU Healthcare.
SEIU Healthcare ran a successful Sweet $16 campaign that lobbied the government to raise personal support workers (PSWs) wages by $4 per hour. In 2014, our efforts resulted in salary increases to a $16.50 per hour minimum wage for PSWs.
Promoting Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity
With a commitment to recognize our diverse membership, in 2015, we restructured our executive board to include seven seats specifically for equity-seeking groups: Workers of Colour, LGBTQ2+, Persons with Disability, Retirees, Young Workers, Women, and Aboriginal and Indigenous peoples. Our e-board also includes our Nursing Division President, three sector seats (Hospital, Long-term Care, and Home and Community Care), and our eight regional seats.
In 2018, Tyler Downey became SEIU Healthcare’s Secretary-Treasurer. Tyler has many years of experience in the labour movement and was the first person of colour to hold this position. Mina Amrith, a former registered practical nurse and long-time women’s advocate, became our first woman of colour to be Executive Vice-President in 2019. We are proud to have one of the most diverse leadership teams and e-boards in the Canadian labour movement.
Recently, SEIU Healthcare established our Social Justice Capacity Building (SJCB) program, which bolsters our union’s work in equity and inclusion. In 2019, we held our first-ever Human Rights Conference with more than 300 members in attendance. The SJCB program has led and assisted with numerous community initiatives that focus on moving the equity agenda forward.
After a 13-year battle, in 2019, SEIU Healthcare and the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) achieved a significant victory for pay equity for healthcare workers. The Ontario Divisional Court ruled in favour of SEIU Healthcare and ONA that female-dominated workplaces, such as nursing homes, can access the proxy method of comparison to update and maintain wage levels. Later, the government filed an appeal at which the Ontario Court of Appeals once again ruled in favour of maintaining the pay equity rights.
Advocating for healthcare workers during COVID-19 pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic, SEIU Healthcare has been a strong voice in protecting healthcare workers. We urged the government to develop guidelines that keep healthcare workers safe and to give workers appropriate PPE. We petitioned the government to introduce hazard pay to recognize healthcare workers for their essential contributions in battling the virus. The Ontario government introduced a $4 pandemic pay, but shamefully excluded many deserving workers. In May 2020, following SEIU Healthcare’s call for expansion of the pandemic pay, the government widened the scope of positions eligible. But the government still left out many healthcare workers.
SEIU Healthcare continues to demand an increase of full-time jobs with benefits, paid-sick leave, access to proper PPE including N95 respirators, and for a living wage that reflects healthcare workers’ challenging and vital roles.