The Winter of our Discontent
Experiences Organizing Nursing Homes

By Betty Burcher and Lissa Donner

Published in The Newsletter [New Tendency], Issue #2 (1973)


This article is an attempt by us to critically evaluate our experiences working in nursing homes and our involvement in union organizing. Although we worked in two separate nursing homes, next door to each other, our experiences were similar. Because we lived together and shared and talked about our experiences as we went through them, it follows that we should write this together.

We found writing together exciting as we saw certain threads developing that were common to both our experiences.

We felt it important as well because of the almost total lack of material written on rank and file struggles in Canada. This is especially true of woman workers outside of the industrial sector.

One of the themes we tried to develop in the article was the specificity of the hospital sector. Although at first glance it appears that hospital workers are not producing a commodity, because we tend to think of commodities as things (i.e. fridges, cars, electronic equipment, etc.), in fact a commodity is “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another.” (Capital Vol. 1 p. 41) Hospital workers view their work differently than industrial workers because they see the direct value of the services they perform.

A serious dilemma faces socialist women, who, critical of the limitations of trade unions, see active involvement in workplace struggles as important. The majority of women workers are not organized into trade unions. Therefore the questions become:
1) Is unionization preliminary to rank and file struggles?
2) What should be our participation in unionizing campaigns?

We were very active and played leadership roles in the unionizing of both the nursing homes where we worked. We hope, through critical evaluation of our experiences, that this analysis will be useful to others faced with this dilemma.

One of the questions we were asked most often is, “Why did you work there? How could you hack it?”

Burcher: I started working at St. Raphael’s because I was considering going into nursing and wanted to try it out as a nurses aide. I had worked previously in a hospital as a ward aide (bed-maker essentially) and so was familiar with and enjoyed (as much as possible under capitalism) hospital work. It was the only place in Kitchener-Waterloo where I could get a job in a hospital sector. (No other job openings and lack of training, either as an R.N. or R.N.A.) Strategically, I would not choose to be there, because it employed only 60 people and was a private nursing home, whereas predominately hospital workers work directly for the state.

Lissa: I decided to work at Sunbeam after working for a few days in an electronics factory. I though that for my survival it was important that I did work that I found basically interesting. Because I had spent some time with a friend who was mentally handicapped and lived with her family, I wanted to experience institutional care and see how that affects children who are forced to spend their lives within the confines of an institution.

Perhaps we should begin by describing the nursing homes we worked in.


“Sunbeam Home for Retarded Children, Waterloo, Inc.” is the official name of the institution. It started out as a private home run by Pieter and Johanna Vos, two ex-Salvation Army missionaries. The “home” expanded rapidly because of the almost total lack of facilities for young children who are mentally handicapped and in need of a lot of personal care.

The children are given custodial care but nothing more. They are kept clean and fed, they are given zincofax for diaper rash, aspirin for temperatures, laxatives and anti-diarrhetics, but because the attitudes of the administration is one of custodial care (“taking care of these poor children”) instead of trying to get them as independent and self-sufficient as possible little if any effort is made to get the kids to feed or dress themselves, to get them talking or sitting or moving around.

Last year with a huge government grant, the home was moved from buildings scattered around Waterloo and one in the village of Doon, to a three-story building in Kitchener the old site of a Catholic college and next door to St. Raphael’s where Burcher worked.

There are approximately 110 employees. Most of us were classified as nurse's aides a title which doesn’t really describe our work, since in fact the aides were the people who worked with the kids and kept the place running. There was an administrative staff of five – Mr. Vos, Mr. Smith, Mr. Wisby, the comptroller, Betty Schulz, the head nurse, and Mrs. Chambers, the nurse in charge of time. Also besides the aides were a secretary, a bookkeeper, about 10 kitchen and housekeeping staff, 12 R.N.s and 6 R.N.A.s (who usually did the same work as us, except when they were more short-staffed than usual: two of the R.N.A.s who were actually R.N.s in their home countries would be used as R.N.s and would give out medications.)

Basically, the nurse’s aides are responsible for the care of the children, keeping the wards running, a lot of the housekeeping – such as dusting, sweeping, cleaning tubs, sinks and windows, and folding laundry. Because there is so much work to be done – especially on day shift, where the only time the staff has to sit down is when they’re feeding someone – and never enough staff – the extra time you need just to sit and play with the kids is not there. The pressure is always on to get the folding done, the feeding finished, the ward tidy. This is discussed among the aides, and the general feeling was that the kids were the ones who suffered because we had so much work to do.

The 126 kids are divided into 9 wards: a special care ward, for the children who need extra nursing care; a ward with about 10 kids who are in a nursery school room for part of the day; the ward where I worked – “big kids” – 24 kids, 15 of whom were in a playroom during the day and 9 bed patients. The “playroom” was a big empty room with a few broken toys. During the days, most of the kids either sat around or lied around the playroom. The attention of the 2 or 3 aides down there was pretty well taken up with the kids who were being “bad” (climbing in the sink, going out the fire door, banging their heads on the furniture out of sheer frustration) in fact, since there were no creative outlets for their energy that were considered “good” the “bad” kids were the active ones, the “good” kids the quiet ones. The other wards were a mixture of kids pretty well all of whom were bed patients with a couple of kids in wheel chairs or special chairs but because there were so few and because that’s extra work that none of the aides have time for, the bed patients see nothing of the world beyond their crib – not a very stimulating environment.

I should make it clear that I think the institution itself is rotten. The idea of places like Sunbeam is to isolate “abnormal” kids from the rest of society instead of trying to get them as independent and self-sufficient as possible and to integrate them with the rest of the community.

For most of the kids, their surroundings consist of the 4 sides of their crib and people in white uniforms who feed and change them.

A lot of the kids are “retarded” not because of “natural” causes but because they were improperly delivered at birth (because of a forceps delivery) or they were born hydrocephalic. (A condition where cerebral-spinal fluids accumulate in the brain due to a blockage. Because the fluids remain in the head, it grows extremely large. Brain cells are destroyed and mental retardation results.) The doctors at the time decided against inserting a shunt (an operation which can prevent further destruction of brain cells and keep the head a relatively normal size, giving them the chance of leading a more normal life. If it’s caught early enough, the child will not be retarded at all.) Because “they’ll only live a few month anyway” and now they’re 11 or 12 or 13 and totally bedridden because their head is too heavy to lift. Some were born as “normal” children and their parents took out their frustrations with the horrors of their lives on the kid, and they call it a “battered baby” and blame the parents and give the kid to Children’s Aid who give them to institutions like Sunbeam who give them as little as they possibly can and call it “charity”.

St. Raphael’s

The nursing home I worked in was a privately owned one, one of a chain of four, owned by a lawyer from Toronto. They had bought an old seminary and had, or were rather in the process, of converting it to a nursing home. It had only been open 2 months by the time I started. The place was in chaos. They were operating without enough and proper equipment and were admitting patients faster than they were hiring staff. Management played on our concern for the patients, expecting us to “help them out” until they were “better organized”. That meant after working a 7 or 8 day stretch, coming in on our day off (overtime pay was never heard of) or working a double shift (from 7 to 10 at night) as well as running twice as hard on the job.

The nursing home housed 150 patients when full. Most of the patients were on the government’s new “Extendicare” plan. The plan was designed for people who don’t need full nursing care – that means that they aren’t sick and do’t require bedside care but they need assistance in getting dressed, or their meals made, or they need the “protective institutional environment.” While the plan was supposedly created to alleviate the shortage of beds in both chronic and active treatment hospitals and to aid the elderly poor, in fact it was easy money for nursing home operators who had guaranteed payments from OHIP. Previously to get partial or full government coverage you had to be sick enough to get into a hospital bed and there were too many old people taking these beds who were not seriously ill. The government set a ceiling on the amount operators could charge for different types of coverage. As in hospitals, there are the distinctions between private, semi-private and ward coverage. (Basically meaning whether you shared a room with 2 or 3 other people and a washroom or maybe even had to walk down the hall to a washroom. If you had private coverage, a washroom came intact with your private room.) What that meant was that for ward coverage the government paid $9.50 or the $12.50 maximum nursing homes could charge. The remaining $3.00 came out of their old age pension, which, on quick calculation, shows it doesn’t leave a hell of a lot of spending money.

The patients were for the most part elderly and had the classic diseases and conditions of the old-diabetes, heart conditions, stroke victims, arthritis, and senility, but also included younger patients, that is, people in their 30’s and 40’s some with paralysis, like cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis or else “mental patients”, some of these alcoholics. However, most of the patients could do things for themselves and only needed assistance in dressing or getting into wheel chairs.

The patients were housed on 3 floors, the first floor being predominately private patients, of course, this was the only floor with broadloomed carpets, a color T.V. in the lounge and air conditioning in the summer. In contrast the third floor had the bed patients and the senile patients. Most of the senile patients spent their days either in bed sleeping or sitting in the lounge in geriatric chairs. (An awkward overgrown high-chair with casters underneath it to push in around and a table in front supposedly to eat on, but more often used as a restraint to hold them in.) Here they “watched” T.V. slept or more often sat in a drugged stupor, yelled to be let out, or talked to themselves. We were upset by their behaviour, but saw it as a reflection of the position of old people in this society, that their lives were over because they were no longer productive and their families had too many pressures to look after them, so put them away. We liked them and were so frustrated that there was never enough time to talk to them. They were lucky if they received the minimum of custodial care.

This was the hardest floor to work on. It required the most lifting – we had to lift them in and out of bed, in and out of bathtubs, in and out of wheel chairs and geriatric chairs. It had the most shit work – cleaning up “puddles” of urine and changing soiled clothes and bedding. The work also demanded patience. We felt it was wrong to take our frustrations with the way the nursing home was run out on the patients.

But despite the noise and the work many of us preferred to work on the third floor rather than the first floor where the “R.B.’s” (Rich Bitches) were. They were more demanding, expecting instant service, treating us as maids. Generally speaking (and from other hospital experiences) working-class patients were nicer to care for. They were less demanding only asking for assistance when really needed and were truly appreciative of help, whereas upper-class patients expect servitude.

The number of staff varied because of the rapid turnover but when the unionizing started numbered about 50-55, all women with the exception of one male housekeeper and the husband of the Director of Nurses. The figure of 50-55 staff is somewhat deceiving because a good third of them were part-time.

Hospital Hierarchy and Guerilla Activity

Although we worked in different nursing homes we found common phenomena around the problem of hierarchal job classification and people’s view of their work.

One of the first things you noticed when you start working in a hospital or nursing home is the hierarchal job structure. You enter the hospital with a certain job classification and you stay there. There is no mobility even though your work may be identical to that of the more trained and higher paid workers (i.e. R.N.’s and R.N.A.’s). At the bottom are the housekeeping, laundry and kitchen staff. One step above them are nurses’ aides hired only by chronic and geriatric hospitals and nursing homes. Because the patients are not seriously ill and don’t require constant medical care but do need assistance coping with their daily needs, trained staff is not deemed necessary. In fact many aides do develop skills supposedly restricted to “Professionals”. For example one of us was giving medications and accompanying doctors on rounds (functions legally restricted to R.N.’s). In fact, aides are a cheap source of labour, many making more than minimum wage. We got $1.88 and $2.00 an hour.

R.N.A’s are caught in the middle. Like the R.N.’s they have a professional association and government certified training program. However in hospitals they do the menial tasks, those performed by aides in nursing homes. It is standard practice in union contracts to include R.N.A.’s but not R.N.’s in the bargaining unit.

R.N.’s in nursing homes usually do the more “skilled” tasks of pushing pills, phoning doctors and changing dressings. But more important they supervise the aides. R.N.’s prefer to work in hospitals where work is more specialized and allows them to make use of their training. Most R.N.’s come from working-class and rural families and are attracted to the professional ideology that surrounds “nurses”.

We want to distinguish again the differences between nursing homes and hospitals. In hospitals job classifications are defined to the last detail (such as people in which category empty bed pans) and are strictly upheld and reinforced by the union contract. Whereas in nursing homes job classifications are not strictly adhered to for several reasons. One is because the nursing homes are smaller, usually not organized into trade unions.

In our experience the nurses aides were the only ones critical of the professional ideology of the R.N.’s because it meant that they sat on their arses while we worked ours off. Because we knew the total needs of the patients and how much work is to be done we become resentful when because of the job classifications work is not shared equally. The resentment becomes more intense when those not working are the ones making the most money. We (all the nurses' aides) differentiated between the R.N.’s who were more capable and were not surrounded by a protective aura of professionalism and did not consider working on the wards beneath them.

The issue of job classification was challenged on a daily basis. Nurses aides attempted to equalize work by articulating our feelings about the unequal work load to the R.N.’s, by coercion sometimes and even occasionally by doing their work if they were extra busy. Historically the movement to define jobs was needed because management was using cheap labour to do skilled jobs unless those jobs were strictly classified and recognized. Job classification became a standard demand in union contracts. The question faces us in a dual way which at first glance appears contradictory. On the one hand we must fight management’s attempt to use cheap labour and escape hiring skilled workers who cost them more. But on the other hand, it is necessary to break down false divisions among the class.

This is a two-edged battle. We demand job classification from management as self-defense against them imposing extra work on us. Amongst ourselves we break down those divisions and help one another because our interests are the same. It is a question of control, whether they decide the organization of work or whether we do.

Because the union has institutionalized the relationship between labour and capital through the bourgeois legal structure – as represented by the contract – they oppose us breaking down job description on the floor. For example, when we complained that the R.N.’s did not help us on the floor, the response of the unions was that the home should hire more nurses’ aides. This response from the union did not deal with the question of job classification.

When new aides start, the first question that is asked about them is whether or not they are good workers. This may seem strange to those whose experience is in the industrial workplace. However, in the hospital it is extremely important because work not done by one person means that it has to be done by someone else.

Work is often organized collectively. (i.e. two people are responsible for 24 patients instead of one for 12.) Because of that if you care for only 8 patients (and do a sloppy job) the other person has to rush to finish the work.

Unlike factories where you are producing commodities of questionable use value, hospital workers see the usefulness in the work they do. No matter how boring or menial the job is, or how awful the working conditions are, you still want to do your best for the patients’ sake. The “service” ethic is easily exploitable by management but at the same time it is a major force for the radicalization of hospital workers. Permissively because we see the direct value of our services and daily see that poor care is the result of management’s “rationalization” of resources and their attempts to save money and increase profits. We both had discussions with women at work around the fact that management was the major obstacle to improved patient care and easily made the links to that we could run the nursing homes ourselves which would simultaneously improve our working conditions and the quality of patient care.


St. Raphael’s

The organizing campaign came partially out of a struggle around not being paid overtime for Christmas Day. At the same time the union organizer was trying to get names of people who might be interested in a union.

The Christmas season was particularly hectic in the nursing home and for us it was the breaking point with management. Because of the newness of the home we had gone along with “helping them out”, “doing our extra bit”, and “trying to understand”, but after Christmas we were fed up.

We were all under pressure with the Christmas season. It meant extra work at home – Christmas shopping, housecleaning, Christmas baking, families coming to visit as well as excited children to contend with. At the nursing home, because Christmas time is traditionally a “family time” the relatives came to visit and to take out their long-forgotten parent and aunts and uncles. It meant extra work for us because we had to dress and prepare the patients and to sign them out. We were also incredibly short-staffed partly because some women had quit because they couldn’t stand the working conditions but also because there had been a feeble attempt by management to arrange our schedules so that we could get either a few days off around Christmas or New Year’s. To piss us off even more management had asked some of us to work from 7 in the morning to 10 at night Christmas Day, meaning that there was no time at all to spend with our families. Half of us who did work Christmas Day drove 50 miles after work to spend part of the day with our families. (of course reporting in at 7 the next morning. We also wanted the patients to have a good Christmas but we realized that it was just impossible. We were just too short-staffed, our working conditions were intolerable and we were becoming collectively hostile and antagonistic to management.

When we received our first paycheque after Christmas Day we were mad because none of us were paid overtime for Christmas Day. By provincial law, employers who work one of the 7 legal statutory holidays must be paid time and a half. Independently of each other, I and another woman had phoned the Department of Labour, enquiring about that, fully expecting the home not to pay us. We had told everyone that we were entitled to it, so when we opened our cheques and found that no one was paid we were angry. We told everyone to go down to the office and demand it. An hour later when the part-time staff was going home, 2 of them came and got me and said “we’re going down together.” It was all so quick. I was the first through the door, so I said quite strongly, but not quite hostiley, “By law we are entitled to over-time pay. Did you know that or was there some mistake in the computer making out our cheques?” They made it look as if the computer had done it, but we knew that they were trying to get away without paying us. They pacified us, taking our stubs and telling us it would be fixed up on the next day. We felt that we had won a small victory and went upstairs telling everyone to take their slips down to the office. In half an hour the Director had gone around and told everyone herself that the computer had made a mistake, that she had phoned the Dept. of Labour to enquire about the legislation, but that their personal policy was so much better because we were entitled to a day off in lieu of overtime pay. (What a break!) But because of our anger, she had found out that someone was going to phone the Labour Board and lay a complaint. Inadvertently, I had said to someone that I was going to phone. (I couldn’t remember who in the confusion of the moment) When I heard that, I decided to lay low for another month (my 3 month probation would be up by then-not that it meant anything) realizing that I had become identified to management as a shit disturber.

The next day, Joan came up to me and said, “Betty, what do you think of a union in here?” Not knowing whether to trust her or not, because I knew someone had gone to management, and not clear on what a union would do. I waffled and said, “Well, it might be a good thing. But I don’t know.” She then said, “Don’t tell anyone, Betty, I’m really scared. I don’t want Schelters (the Director and her husband) to know.” I knew that she was sincere, so the next day I arranged to work with her. We talked about what a union would do. She told me that a guy in the union at Sunnyside had asked her mother-in-law, who worked there, to get names from her of people at St. Raphael’s. She didn’t know the name of the guy, nor of the union. Sunnyside is a large municipal nursing home, which has been organized by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for 9 years. It boasts one of the best nursing-home hospital contracts in Ontario and it is well-known in the K-W area as a good place to work. (Aides there start at $2.55/hr and go up to $2.95/hr after a year.)

The Union Organizer

I presumed the guy in the union was Bill Morrison, the union organizer in the K-W area for SEIU. I had met him earlier in the summer through the Dare strike. His wife is a striker at Dare’s and through her he became active with the militants in the strike. Bill Morrison is not a typical union bureaucrat. He has been in Canada 10 years, coming from England, and is a socialist trade unionist. He worked as an electrician in one of the K-W hospitals, and moved up to the position of organizer through the ranks of the union. Essentially, though, he is a trade unionist through and through. Although we agreed on some of the problems of unions, such as the lack of participation of the rank and file and the control by the American International, he say that the unions had to change and be fighting rank and file unions like they were in the 30’s. Here we disagreed. We saw that the trade union movement had played an historically useful role in improving the conditions of the working class, but that to gain control of the workplace had to develop separately from the union. Whereas he saw all rank and file activity developing through the union structure and the union movement being the vanguard of the working class. He has a profound hatred for intellectuals and analytical thought and criticism, and did not separate the two. He was hostile and snidely critical of our study group, lambasting us for hanging around “academics” (because most of the group were still students). To him activity in the trade union movement (and leadership of those unions by leftists) was the only viable activity for socialists. Anything else was bullshit and a waste of time.

I sent word to Bill through one of the Dare strikers, that I wanted to talk to him. He phoned me up the next day and I spent 3 hours talking to him, asking him about the union, what sort of things the union would push for in a contract, what was the grievance procedure like, how you started organizing, did the locals have any autonomy in the international and so on and then, talked about hospital workers and how could we get anywhere with no-strike legislation. Essentially I was feeling him out and trying to distinguish between what was the reality of the union and what he would like it to be or thought possible and how he saw rank and file struggles developing in the hospital sector. I was not upfront at all about my perspective because I was not clear how to relate to a non-unionized shop. He wanted me to sign a union card, give him names and be the “inplant person”, but I refused, saying that I wouldn’t until I had talked it over with the other women and we decided what to do. Unknown to him, I had phoned CUPE and asked if they organized private nursing homes, and if we wanted, would they come up and talk to several women.


The question of why SEIU and not CUPE is the question I have been asked most often and I think it is important to describe how that happened because it is tied up with how I saw my role. I was very much in a quandary about should we get a union in and whether it should be CUPE or SEIU. Fortunately our study group was meeting at that point and was useful to help me clarify the questions. I decided that a union was necessary as a from of self-defense and that it would improve the working conditions. At least our wages would increase, we would have job security and spelled out working conditions.

I was perplexed about SEIU and CUPE. Previously, I had worked in a CUPE hospital and although I knew that CUPE was Canadian and at least on paper guaranteed local autonomy, the union was seen by most of the workers as Joe and Albert – (press. and vice-press.) – no conception that the union was all of us. In Kitchener, CUPE is in only a few shops, whereas all the organized hospitals and nursing homes are in SEIU (one hospital which is now being organized and the two nursing homes where we worked were the largest places left unorganized.) I thought at that point that it would easier to build links with other hospital workers if we were in the same union although I recognized that CUPE allowed more local autonomy. I wanted to talk it over with the women at work, but unfortunately we were either sick or off so Bill had signed up the first woman (Joan) before we could talk it over.

The last thing I wanted to see was a jurisdictional fight between SEIU and CUPE as I saw that only dividing us. Also I didn’t want myself to make that decision for the other women by phoning CUPE and signing with them and asking them to come in.

The Organizing

Joan was the first woman signed up by Bill. I was the second. That was on the Tuesday and on the weekend I signed up my friend Bev. The following Tuesday we had our first meeting and a week later the union applied for automatic certification. The whole signing up was incredible – it happened so quickly – so much faster than I expected it would. We (essentially Bev, Joan and I – we played a leadership position in the ensuing struggle) signed up people at work and we went out every night to the women’s homes.

It was not difficult to sign up the women. Because of the newness of the place, management had not organized the work and did not try to integrate, nor did they teach us any nursing skills. Rather, they stayed in their offices while we on the floors organized ourselves to get the work done, figured out the nursing skills or nabbed an R.N. to show us, but essentially we taught and organized ourselves. This was important because not only did it bring us together in opposition against the management but also it gave us a sense of power so it was not difficult to take collective action. There were other reasons why signing up was so easy. On the weekend before two separate things appeared in the K-W paper. One was an article stating that Sunnyside Home had just concluded their contract negotiations and that aides would now start at $2.55/hr. The other was an ad St. Raphael’s had placed in the paper advertising for patients. It was a very slick con job, stating that the nursing home employed a staff of 80 (in reality there were 50) “trained in nursing skills and especially selected for their sympathy and sensitivity to the elderly”. It described the place in such glowing details, which were outright lies, that it sounded like a good place to work!

But perhaps the most important single factor in the ease of signing women up was that we did it ourselves from the inside. Bill was only there in the wings or driving us or talking to the more resistant women.

Although initially I intended to be critically supportive of the union, explaining that unions could only go so far in improving working conditions, the signing up happened so quickly and I got caught up in the momentum that I did not do as much as I intended to. Also when you are “pushing” the union, you tend to push for it more strongly than you actually know that it can come through it. Joan, Ben and I were identified as the “pushers”. We didn’t initially see ourselves as the leadership but realized through the signing that we could depend on each other to come through and to stick our necks out. But as much as we were the leadership, we consciously tried to bring in as many women as possible into signing up and talking to other women began to see our role was more of confidence-support. We were the ones who always said “yes, the union will get in if we all stick together” and “yes, we will win.”

Through this we realized each others strengths and weaknesses and supported each other. Joan was more gutsy and she often would initiate talking whereas I was more “reasonable” and so we worked well together. We also discovered that women who were nice and easy-going were not necessarily the strongest sticking it out.

It wasn’t until the day the union applied for automatic certification that management even knew we were talking about a union. Because the signing up was an inside and more collective phenomenon, it meant that instead of 1 or 2 people judging that others were like we had a much more collective opinion. We could leave the ones who would tattle to management to the end. So we approached them that day and got into heavy arguments and sure enough it got back. The next day the Director and her lackey were on the floor and as sweet as pie to us, but the following day (when they probably received notification from the Labour Board about the application) they called a staff meeting. Our hearts all went to our feet – we knew what it was about. We assembled, all looking the models of poise and dignity, but quaking on the inside.

They told us what they thought of union, essentially that they weren’t for them (of course not, it wasn’t in their interests), that they were “hurt” that we had gone and done this behind their back. Wouldn’t we please give them a chance to get the place more organized and “Why we don’t understand. Our doors are always open. Come down and air your complaints.” (Sure and be fired – 6 people had been already.)

We all sat tight refusing to say anything. But the affect of the meeting brought out the scabs. One woman went directly to the directors, telling them who the “pushers” were.

Legally, the surest way to oppose granting of automatic certification is that a petition must be circulated by employees opposing the union. There is supposed to be no collaboration between management and those employees opposed to the union. Well, that’s what the law states. However, a lawyer was called in by management who suggested to the scabs in the kitchen to start the petition.

By this time the home was divided between those supporting the union on one side and management and the scabs on the other. Friendships were broken up. Scabs were being called scabs. We isolated the scabs by refusing to talk to them or staring them directly in the eye. Management started to retaliate by dividing up the “pushers.” Bev and I who had always traveled to and from work together and were always on the same shift and same days were separated. I was put on nights and the rest of the time on the hardest floor. I hated the night shifts. It was bad enough working because it messed up sleeping (I’d work 2 nights, then 2 days, and back on nights without a day off) but also the steady night shift as a block had refused to sign up, and were hostile to us. Joan was put under a lot of pressure. She would always get the shit for something all of us had done. Also, management was able to get a fellow-employee (but ass-licker scab) to complain about her work. Joan was under so much pressure that in the 2 months between signing up and the time the vote was finally taken that she ended up in hospital for 5 days and finally quit. Bev they tried to buy off. The Director praised her for her “good nursing care” and opened all the doors for her to enter a nursing course.

The hearing at the Labour Board took place two weeks after the union fired for automatic certification. The petition was a major piece of evidence, particularly as 4 people who signed union cards had also signed the petition. It’s a number's game too. Although we thought that we had over the required 65% the “neutral” labour board found that some worked less than 24 hours (and were therefore part-time) and that some had quit.

The union lawyer went for a compromise, a delaying tactic where the labour board would go into the home to investigate who was eligible for the bargaining unit. They didn’t come until 3 weeks later. Another compromise happened at this point. The union agreed to go to a vote rather than back to the board. The vote was not set until the 2nd of April. (The union had filed for certification on the 30th of January.)

On of the difficulties we faced is that the struggle around getting the union in lost momentum. Essentially it was because of the delaying procedures of getting certification from the Labour Board. Although the trade union movement has certain legal rights around the rights of employees to belong to unions, it is only on paper couched in such legalistic jargon and practices, that most people can’t understand it. We got discouraged and frustrated and lost our collective sense of power that we could improve our conditions. However around the vote there was a fair amount of enthusiasm generated and it lasted for a while but the delay of getting into bargaining furthered the frustration.


The organizing campaign at Sunbeam began with the granting of certification to St. Raphael’s. I was the first person to sign a union card. About 3 weeks later the 2nd person signed. In the next 5 weeks we signed another 68 people and applied for automatic certification. The Labour Board hearing is next week.

Unlike St. Raphael’s we didn’t have people going out every evening to sign others up. I worked straight evenings (3 - 11p.m.) for the entire 7 months I was there, with the exception of 1 week on days, during the organizing for my “practical training” (after I’d been there 5 months, they showed me how to give a bath properly). That made it impossible for me to go out except on my evening off – and since my usual schedule was 9 days on, 2 days off, 6 days on, 4 days off, that didn’t happen very often.

Most people were signed up at work, by people who worked with them. (i.e. 2 aides on days did most of the signing up of day staff, I was signing evening staff and one woman on nights got those she worked with.)

For most of the people the extra money we would make after unionization was the major reason they signed. We were “salaried” employees, not paid by the hour. This was their way of making our job sound “professional.” Our “salary” was $326/month, which works out to $1.88/hr. if you work a 40 hour week. But since we often worked more than 80 hours in a 2 week period, our paycheques would work out to less than minimum wage. The aides at Sunnyside, a nursing home nearby us, were starting at $2.55/hr, $2.75 after 6 months and $2.95 after 1 year. Also at Sunbeam, overtime pay was unheard of, as was time and a half for statutory holidays.

But for a lot of the staff, the issue of patient care was also important. A union contract would mean that we would not have to do housekeeping work and could spend more time with the kids. It would also mean less of a staff turnover, (last year it was over 100%) because the pay would be good enough that people could afford to stay and work there. We talked a lot about what such a high turnover meant to the kids. Since staff for the most part didn’t stay long, care was not consistent and they could not develop any lasting relationships.

We also talked about the role of the Voses. At the staff Christmas party and at Mrs. Vos’ “farewell” party, Mr. Vos made speeches about how hard their work had been, how “God has been good to us” and that “God has given us strength.” To the community the Voses appear as the epitome of charitable sacrifice. In reality they’ve become millionaires off the suffering of those children.

They now have the audacity to call their work “charity”.

Working there, barely making enough to live on yourself, knowing how much some extra money for equipment, toys and staff would have meant for the kids, and then finding out that the money instead of helping kids, or paying you a decent wage, instead pays for the Vos’ holidays in Jamaica, or their huge house in Conestoga, and hearing it all done in the name of religious sacrifice really gets people mad. We saw through their facade of “charity” and realized that more money for us would hurt only the Vos’ bank account, not the kids. And since, as far as we could gather, the home is now being totally run on government money, it wasn’t even clear how much it would effect the Voses.

I was not analytical at all about getting heavily involved in the organizing. Throughout the organizing campaign at St. Raphael’s I was critical of Burcher’s heavy involvement. I think now that I was criticizing her without understanding the pressure she was under, especially from Morrison. Because he’s an “old leftie” he knew very effectively how to pressure and guilt both of us, using political language. For instance when I told my friends at work I was leaving they said, “We’ll miss you.” or asked why and understood that there wasn’t much to bind me to Kitchener. Whereas Morrison tried to guilt me by saying, “Why do you want to go off with all your academic friends? This is where the Real Politics are. We’re going to take over this town.” “Take over” meant that trade union candidates would have a majority on city council and that radical unionists would control the Labour Council.

Unlike St. Raphael’s, Sunbeam management said and did nothing throughout the organizing campaign. What I concluded from that was that Vos probably hadn’t caught on to what was happening, but that Smith had, and had decided to say nothing. From what we could gather, Smith did not get along with Vos and probably felt caught between trying to run things “efficiently” and carrying out Vos’ latest whim. (For instance – one of the most active women was alone in the big kids playroom with the 15 kids, while the one other nurse’s aide working with her was on break. Vos came in and told her to take the kids outside for lunch. She refused, saying she could not possibly watch all the kids and get them outside, then bring their food outside, feed the kids (It’s even harder outside than in, since there’s all that mud to eat if you’re outside) and then bring the dishes and the kids back even with the help of the other aide. She told him that there just was not enough staff. Needless to say, he got extremely uptight, called the head nurse, Betty Schulz and Smith, and she threatened to walk out if they made them take the kids out. Smith and Schulz supported her, told Vos it couldn’t be done and Smith sent another aide to try and convince her not to quit. She told me later that if it hadn’t been for the organizing she would have left then.

But despite this liberal front Smith was a pig and we used that when talking to people. He had a habit (he did it to me twice the week I was on days) of tip-toeing up unnoticed while you were engrossed in your work, watching you for a while silently, and then saying something like “what do you think you’re doing here?” in an authoritarian voice directly over your shoulder. I was really worried that he’d do that someday while I was holding one of the kids and that out of surprise, I’d drop them.

He also fired a number of women. They just got a letter one day saying their work wasn’t satisfactory. That scared us, but it also made us mad that he didn’t have the guts to say it to your face. He held most of the staff in contempt. When I went in to give my resignation, he told me that he would always take me back because I was “no worse than any of the others.” What a put down, not only of me, but of all the aides. One remark like that can break down all the crap they give you in a place like Sunbeam (especially from Vos) about being “one, big, happy family.”

Realizing that the management really did look down on us and think themselves superior beings, got people mad enough at the place and the way it’s run to join and support the union.

I found that I got very caught up in the feverish activity on organizing. I found especially that my criticisms of the limitations of trade unions could not be brought up openly or strongly during the campaign if we were to sign up as many people as possible.

General Conclusions

1. Unions

We want to make clear here, the position we have come to on the question of unions. There seems to be an assumption, or perhaps it’s just an outside definition, that the new tendency is anti-union without spelling that out. On a larger level we see unions’ meditating role between labour and capital as inhibiting working class struggles (outside of contract disputes organized by the union), organization (outside of the trade union structure) and consciousness (outside of trade union consciousness). To use a concept originated by Italian militants, they act as “firemen” within working class struggles. Historically they have played a useful role in improving the conditions of the working class. However, unions have fought to determine the rate of exploitation of labour power, instead of fighting to end wage labour. Inherent in the labour contract is both economic gain, in terms of wage increases and fringe benefits, but also the provision of a stable disciplined labour force for the employer. This includes: 1) guarantees by the union not to strike or to have work stoppages only at the end of the contract. 2) a bureaucratic and hierarchical grievance procedure which removes control over grievances away from the shop floor. 3) “management’s prerogatives” where the union agrees to cede to the employer the operations and organization of the work place, the rights to hire, fire, suspend, lay off, etc.

For most workers, the trade unions remain basic organizations of defense of their immediate economic interests against the employers – but they tend to see them as collectors of insurance premiums (i.e. cheque of $5.00/month) in return for services.

It is not enough to say that the problem is the American domination and control of the union movement in Canada. Certainly that is one aspect of the problem and we are not taking that lightly, but we must come to grips with the more fundamental problem that we have outlined above. However, this is not to say that forming a union is contradictory to our perspective. Rather, what we want to see developing is autonomous, rank and file activity and organization. At different points in history and in different sectors that does and will take different forms. For instance, it may take the form of organizing a rank and file committee (perhaps to take over the union structure for a particular purpose or to work separately and independently of it). It may be workers deciding not to have anything to do with a union (e.g. 100 engineers in Vancouver disaffiliated from C.B.R.T.). It may be a breakaway from an international union to form a Canadian union. It may be things like we discussed in the earlier part of the paper (activity to break down job classification). We don’t see consciousness changing linearly (i.e. form a union and from that people develop trade union consciousness and then go beyond it to develop revolutionary consciousness.)

2. Leadership

The question of our leadership in both situations must be evaluated. At the outset, both of us were quite definite that we would be critical of the limitations of trade unionism. However, we both got caught up in the momentum. Our criticisms of trade unions would dissuade people from signing up and we needed as many cards as possible. Neither of us wanted to get put in the position of becoming the chair person of the unit but we were under a lot of pressure from both Bill and the other women. The women said to Burcher, “You’re single, you have the time; you can talk.” Bill said to us, “They need leadership by people who understand.” (i.e. leftist trade-unionists)

On of the hardest things to break down is people’s cynicism, their feeling that they are powerless, that they can change nothing. The hierarchical and authoritarian conditions that is so important to the functioning of capitalism makes it really difficult to break of out of the conception that other people do things for you and represent your interests.

For instance, when some of the women brought up how shitty the union was in the rubber plants where their husbands worked, they said, “Thacker’s no good. They need good leadership.”

Having a perspective of encouraging and building towards rank and file struggles but faced with authoritarian conditioning that encourages “leadership” we have a problem. We found that we played more of a leadership role than we wanted to admit. Although we tried to emphasize that it was all of us in it together, the women looked to us for suggestions of what we should do. We spent a lot of time just trying to encourage confidence in the women, that they individually and collectively were capable of acting.

Looking back, we are critical of the heavy leadership roles that we played because we knew we were leaving and would not be part of any continuing struggles. Things would be more likely to fall apart when we were removed. After the union was in at St. Raphael’s a woman was fired and no one did anything, not even tell the union. If Joan and Burcher had still been there, they wouldn’t have let that happen.

3. Women and Work

The women’s movement theorizes that women have two jobs. We didn’t have to tell them that. They told us about the hell of being mothers and housewives and working outside the home.

Everyone recognizes the difficulty of getting women to meetings. Some of the women managed to get out to meetings and get out to sign up other women because their husbands were sympathetic to getting the union in. But if their husbands weren’t sympathetic they wouldn’t risk it. We were vehement that the union was to pay for babysitting so that the women with children could come to meetings.

One of the things we found important were the neighborhood links, not only between the women themselves, but between the women at St. Raphael’s, Sunbeam, Sunnyside, St. Mary’s Hospital and Dare’s. We talked about the other places recognizing that we all had similar interests. It was from this that we learned that links within the community could be useful in workplace organizing.

We all learned a lot. Looking back, Joan said it for us all, “I’m not sorry about what I did. I learned about people. I learned about unions. And I learned about women’s rights.”

Note: We found the following articles helpful:
1) “Hospital Workers: A Case Study of the New Working Class.” Monthly Review Vol. 24 Number 8. B. and J. Ehrenreich
2) “Trade Unionism and Workers Control”. Stanley Aronowitz, in Workers’ Control ed. Hunnius, Garson and Case.
3) Union Committeemen. Martin Glaberman. (Facing Reality pamphlet)
4) Facing Reality . C.L.R. James
5) A Woman’s Place. Selma James


On June 18th, Sunbeam won automatic certification at the Labour Board hearing. Momentum amongst the women seems to have declined a lot. None of them came to the hearing. Morrison didn’t go out of his way to get people to come, either. An interesting point – the lawyer who represented St. Raphael’s management was also at the Sunbeam hearing. It seems he’s Chairman of the Sunbeam Board of Directors.

Betty Burcher
Lissa Donner

Published in The Newsletter [New Tendency], Issue #2, 1973

Related Reading:

New Tendency Newsletter #1
New Tendency Newsletter #2
New Tendency Newsletter #3
New Tendency Newsletter #4
New Tendency Newsletter #5
New Tendency Newsletter #6
Remembering Lissa Donner

Subject Headings: Disabled ChildrenHealth Care WorkersHomes for the AgedLabour OrganizingLabour UnionsNursing HomesUnion OrganizingWomen & WorkWork ExperienceWorking WomenWorkplace Stress