Strike a life-changing experience (Guest commentary)

What one HR practitioner learned during labour strife

The usual articles with an HR focus talk of strategic planning, fact finding and data collection. Throw in work-life balance, motivation, job satisfaction, rewards and recognition. They often cover theory but what they’re lacking is the experience of just being human.

For close to 20 years I’ve practiced as an HR generalist with typical roles and responsibilities, but the summer of 2007 was a turning point — an opportunity to look at life from a different perspective.

Striving for equity, Community Living employees in multiple union locals in southwestern Ontario went on strike in June for about seven weeks. Their purpose was to encourage the funding ministry to increase the coffers of the various agencies that employed them.

Caught in the middle, agencies had to plan supports for people with developmental disabilities in advance.

While opinions will vary and become heated on either side, the reality is a strike in this type of organization is far different than in the private sector where production and profit are the only victims. Here, there was a need for ensuring the safety — from personal care, meals and medications around the clock — of people who had nowhere to turn for assistance.

And that is where the story begins.

Working with an outside firm, we sourced workers to assist the 18 of us in management. While we were committed to being at the sites around the clock, we needed help to provide essential support to more than 80 people. Unfortunately, we had to shut down periphery services.

The workers we found came with Personal Support Worker training but far more in depth of character. Many had education from their home countries that wasn’t recognized in Canada — a few nurses, a doctor from China and a respiratory therapist, to name a few.

As with all strikes, picket lines are emotional for the picketers. They’re fighting for a cause they believe in while, in our case, worrying about the people they help and struggling with personal finances. Unfortunately, it’s also an opportunity for a small percentage to “get even” with management for any perceived slights.

The replacement workers, with few exceptions, were compassionate about the struggles of the picketers. The same people who were subjected to daily intimidation, racial slurs, harassment and at times physical altercations had stories of their own that spoke of their life, hardships and desire for a better future. To a degree, they related to the strikers’ cause, perhaps more so than those of us in management.

I recall a man who had to leave his wife and children behind in a country torn by war and poverty so he could build a better life in Canada and bring them to safety. I remember a woman who, after two years, still didn’t know if her husband was dead or imprisoned in her politically unstable country. Or a young man who, on the last day of the strike, wanted to leave a fresh flower for the returning staff as a symbol of friendship.

Yes, there are many opinions of replacement workers. But with our circumstances, they were needed and made for a humbling experience. It was stunning to see such compassion toward the anger directed at them, to see the care and willingness shown to quickly learn what was needed to support the people in the homes. Sharing their culture and experiences was enlightening for all of us.

And what did I learn from this chapter of my adventure? That there will always be varying opinions. More so, that sometimes it is the person who crosses your path ever so briefly who teaches you one of the greatest of life’s lessons: Everyone deserves compassion and understanding.

Denise House is director of human resources at the Elgin Association for Community Living in St. Thomas, Ont.

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