By Terry Inigo-Jones,
“I was crying,” says Jennifer Chikonyora, whose 45-year-old daughter Erin has lived at Glenwood community home in Edmonton for 35 years. “It was one of those moments when you can’t believe what you’re hearing and I was so happy I was just sobbing.”
Chikonyora was reacting to the news that a tough, seven-month campaign to save group homes for Albertans with complex disabilities had ended in victory. The threat to hand over publicly delivered care of the most vulnerable people in the province to private operators, perhaps even to move residents against their will in the middle of a pandemic, was over.
Samantha Samborski, an individual support worker at Edmonton’s Rosecrest home for children with developmental disabilities, says: “It absolutely felt wonderful when we heard the news that they weren’t going to privatize our homes. We received an email that morning and I just about jumped off the couch … such a wonderful wrap up to a long seven months.”
Workers at the group homes and family members of residents took a little time to celebrate. They had earned it. However, at AUPE, thoughts quickly turned to the future. How did we win? What lessons could be learned for future fights against injustice and bad government policies? After all, winning one battle is good. Learning how to win more battles is better.
This fight was about quality care
Before we can examine how we fight, first we must look at why we fight.
The campaign to protect disability services involved workers at the group homes, guardians and family members of residents, and other supporters including Marie Renaud, MLA for St. Albert and the NDP critic for Community and Social Services.
In June 2020, the government informed AUPE that it was looking at a new privatized delivery model for services provided at Residential Support Services, Rosecrest and Hardisty Home in Edmonton, and Calgary Region PDD Graduated Supports.
That new model could have eliminated more than 340 AUPE member jobs, but while their careers were high on their minds, it was the threat to the care of the residents that was their top priority. A career in care for people with severe and complex disabilities is more of a vocation than a job.
AUPE vice-president Kevin Barry, who is chair of AUPE’s anti-privatization committee, explains that caregivers form close relationships with the residents, many of whom cannot speak or walk. Carers have to look for non-verbal cues to see if the residents are happy, upset or uncomfortable.
Such close observation “creates a deep bond where you learn how to read somebody’s body language, you really get to learn their personalities,” says Barry. "This is an ongoing, day-to-day, long-term building relationship that they get to enjoy with their clients.”
Asked to describe her relationship with residents, Samborski says through tears: “The ones that I care for are like my own children. Many of them don’t have families … Every day that we went through this, knowing sometimes that this could be the last time we could see them (it was) heartbreaking … it was on our minds how privileged we are to care for these people.”
We did not fight alone
The campaign to protect disability services was not the work of AUPE alone. Union members worked closely with guardians and family members of residents, and with the NDP's Renaud, contacting local councils, education authority members, community leaders and health-care professionals to get their support.
“This was a decision (to privatize) that was definitely not the right decision. It was going to harm so many, so many people in a very, very negative way and I think that showed in the amount of allies that we were able to gather and get them to write letters of support.”
Five tactics to force change
Barry stresses the need to have a multi-faceted plan. You need to be prepared to be innovative and try many things.
In this campaign, tactics included:
- Pressuring MLAs: Seeking face-to-face meetings to educate them on the level of care provided at these homes and the reasons why privatizing would be bad. Meeting them in person showed “we weren’t just keyboard warriors,” says Samborski.
- Pressuring the minister: Workers and family members explained the issue to various groups and individuals and asked for help. This led to the City of Leduc, the Town of Morinville, Edmonton public teachers, a priest, a doctor and a physiotherapist writing letters to the minister in support of the campaign. The campaign put pressure on the minister to visit the facilities and meet family members.
- Informing the public: Making Albertans aware of the dangers of changing the way care was delivered. Campaign supporters went door to door in the constituency of Minister Sawhney to round up support. Similar door-knocking efforts took place in Edmonton. These efforts showed the minister that voters knew about and often opposed any decision to privatize.
- Launching a petition: About 5,000 people signed a petition opposing privatization, which let the government know that this fight was not just from a few hundred workers concerned for their jobs.
- Getting media coverage: A rally by protesters at the Legislature and an attempt to visit the minister at her constituency office generated significant media coverage, which ensured that the final decision would have to be made in the glare of publicity. AUPE created several moving videos of workers and family members speaking out against privatization that were shared on social media.
If you want to persuade someone, neither facts nor emotions on their own are enough. However, creating a message that brings together facts and emotions has power. This required getting family members and workers to explain how this decision made them feel and getting research into why privatizing care made no sense, financially or otherwise.
Preparation was key for Samborski when she made a presentation to the Town of Morinville council, when she spoke to MLAs and when she challenged Education Minister Adriana LaGrange at a public event.
“That was a new challenge for me, to get up in front of a lot of people like that (at the Morinville council meeting)... but we went in prepared,” she says. “When we were discussing it, we had a nice balance between the actual facts and then the compassion side of why it was important.”
Samborski’s real preparation, however, started a few years ago. Back then she had no experience of this kind of activism or advocacy, but found that AUPE education courses were a great help.
“I owe a lot of where I am today to those (AUPE education) courses. When I first started, it was nothing more than a challenge and an opportunity to grow within myself, but I have managed to look back now and see that all those little steps and all those little courses have been a significant help in me being able to be a part of this fantastic win at the end of the day.”
Part of the preparation dates back even further to when AUPE members and negotiators worked on a collective-bargaining agreement for workers employed by the Government of Alberta. That agreement included Article 53, which forced the employer into 90 days of consultation with AUPE before it could cut members’ jobs.
The union put those 90 days to good use by planning its campaign and recruiting allies.
Barry says: “I know that article itself has certainly helped not just the employees, the AUPE members, but also, in this case, the families and guardians. It gave time to catch their breath about the decision that they felt was going to happen, to start … a fightback campaign to make sure that this doesn’t happen. So, you know, I think that that is a key piece that we have in our arsenal as well.”
Although the government says it will keep things as they are now at these group homes, concerns still remain about their long-term viability. Workers and family members fear that the government will stop new admissions, which means the pressure on the facilities will grow year by year as residents pass away and occupancy rates decline.
“So, they are essentially cutting off their client base in order to let the facilities slowly die,” says Barry. “We know there is a waiting list for these facilities and we want to be able to pressure them to open them up to the folks who are waiting in line to get into these facilities.”\
In the meantime, however, Chikonyora is relieved that her daughter will continue to get the quality of care and the happy life she deserves thanks to the workers at the Glenwood community home.
For the last seven months, she says she felt like she was letting her daughter down. She worried about what would happen to Erin after her parents passed away. “As her mother, I was fighting to keep her where she was safe, where she was loved and cared for,” she says. “As I am getting older, I won’t always be here for Erin. I want to be sure as far as I can be that she remains in a situation where she is well cared for by qualified, caring staff,” she says.
“As I am getting older, I won’t always be here for Erin. I want to be sure as far as I can be that she remains in a situation where she is well cared for by qualified, caring staff.”
Imagine how a parent of someone with complex medical needs must feel to have to wonder, to fear, what the future holds for their child. They cannot fight these fights from beyond the grave.
Chikonyora was part of a successful battle against privatization when Don Getty was premier in the 1980s and she was part of the campaign again this time.
“I hope we never have to go through this again, but at least we know how to do it,” she says.