Union leader Sharleen Stewart is bent on making health care a top provincial election issue

TheStar.com – news/Canada
Published On Fri Jun 24 2011.    Jim Coyle, Feature Writer

To see more than 100 people in purple scrubs dancing to “Cupid Shuffle” on Yonge-Dundas Square at 8 a.m. on Friday morning was to fear Thursday night might have involved epic excess.

But no. The dancers greeting the day in Toronto’s downtown core were fresh-faced and clear-eyed. They were choreographed. They were members of the Service Employees International Union.

And they were strutting their stuff to make the point — at the end of an intriguing training session this week — that health-care workers at the low end of the wage ladder don’t intend to be shrinking violets in the provincial election come October.

Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Local 1 in Ontario, told the Star her union is importing tactics used by its American counterpart to help elect President Barack Obama in 2008.

The SEIU plans to mount “the biggest ground campaign” ever seen in Canada. It intends to keep the focus on health care. And it intends to defeat candidates who threaten it.

“Our candidate is health care,” Stewart said. “So when we go knocking on doors we’re going to talk to them about health care.”

More than half of SEIU’s members work in health care — in hospitals, nursing homes and retirement homes, or providing in-home care and community services. These workers are predominantly female and often among the lowest paid in the system.

Come the election campaign, the SEIU plans to have volunteers knock on 200,000 doors and dispatch 300,000 emails. Its nurses and caregivers will be talking to friends and neighbours — especially in swing ridings. They will be seeking not just votes, but also more organizers to join the cause.

“We’re really focusing on the grassroots, one on one, real people out there telling their stories as health-care workers,” Stewart said.

The SEIU’s “road warriors” will be supported by a technology platform borrowed from the Obama campaign: sophisticated digital organizing; email campaigns to drum up volunteers and donations; outreach through social networking; robo-calls; and mobile text campaigns.

This week, the SEIU international executive was in town training local members in lessons learned working on the Obama campaign.

There, superb grassroots organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts essentially expanded the electorate by mobilizing women, low-income earners and multicultural communities that had not traditionally voted in large number.

“We’re bringing that back into Canada,” Stewart said. “We’ve been working on it for the last year.”

If Canada had a Norma Rae, her name would probably be Sharleen Stewart.

In the early 1980s, Stewart was an 18-year-old cashier at a Saskatoon grocery store. She was the youngest person on staff and hadn’t been there long when she began organizing a union.

“As usual, it’s some injustice that usually triggers the need for a union,” she said.

One of her co-workers needed foot surgery. “He had to get the whole beds cut out of his toes, so he was all bandaged up and couldn’t come to work.” The employer expected him back on the job in a couple of days, “because, my gosh, it was only his toenails.”

Even a doctor’s note wasn’t enough, she recalled. “They terminated him. That’s what triggered it.”

Those were the days, too, when Stewart learned about intimidation. The day the union was certified, a meat manager — three times her size wearing a belt of knives — showed up at her cash register pounding his fist on her desk in fury.

Stewart held her ground.

“There were customers around and everybody else kind of scurried away and I just told him he was making a fool out of himself, as my heart was pounding through my chest at 18 years old.”

Thirty years on, a mother of three and herself a grandmother, Sharleen Stewart is Ontario president of the fastest growing union on the continent, with more than 2 million members in the U.S. and 60,000 across Canada.

Needless to say, PC Leader Tim Hudak is not apt to be a beneficiary of her union’s initiatives, Stewart noted.

There are too many memories of the cuts made under the Harris government, of which he was part — cuts to hospital beds and nursing jobs, along with attacks on unions, the poor and the poorly paid.

“That’s what we’re reminding our members.”

The SEIU’s backing will likely be won by the health-care candidate best able to defeat a PC candidate in given ridings, she said.

On Thursday, Premier Dalton McGuinty made his pitch to the visiting international executive — telling of his experience after university working as an orderly, bathing, shaving and brushing the hair of war vets in an Ottawa hospital.

“I loved that job,” he said.

The premier won favour by quoting Martin Luther King’s praise of the labour movement. And he portrayed the coming election as a fight between progressives and Hudak’s retrograde forces of “cuts, chaos and confrontation.

“So I need your help.”

Stewart acknowledges that it hasn’t been the best of times for the labour movement in recent decades. Across North America, unions have declined in number and membership. Workers in the public and private sector have been pitted against each other, she said, with the word “union” uttered almost as a profanity by the right.

But, as her track record shows, she relishes a fight.

“Our life depends on the October election. And literally, not just as a health-care worker, but as consumers of health care.

“Eventually, the healthiest, the youngest, the most vigorous person out there, all of us are going to need health care or support. Don’t wait until you need it to realize what they’ve done with it.”

And when battles are toughest, she often thinks back to that Saskatoon meat manager.

“I guess I credit that to him. It’s like, you’re not going to stop me from doing what’s right. And I think that’s why I represent the people I do.”

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