Recent retirees including those inducted into SGEU’s lifetime members group this year recently sat down together to reflect on what they call a dramatically-changing climate for labour. See more here
“It’s sad to say but we don’t realize how good we had it in the old days,” says Helen Hrynchak, who started her career as a corrections worker in 1988. “We always fought for more rights and we never settled.”
Hrynchak says she sympathizes with her counterparts with whom she says she will always support in a spirit of strong solidarity.
“Corrections to me were not bad in those days when I reflect on nowadays — correctional centres are terrible hell holes to work in nowadays and the rights of our members are being stomped on, plain and simple.”
“The political climate has changed so drastically. In those days there was downsizing and they were always trying to cut staff and programming but never to the degree they are now.”
Escalating the issue, she adds, is the fact that the increasingly challenging conditions of jails are not being recognized.
“We didn’t have gang violence like they do now and it’s dangerous — stabbing between inmates and even of staff now and then is indicative of how dangerous it is to work in jails. It’s extremely unlikely the count in the jail systems is going to be reduced, it just keeps increasing — they’ve been living in gyms with porta potties — that is the new normal — how much further can it go before a big bust? I’m not happy about what’s going on now.”
Cam Kelly started his career in social services before serving as a young offenders’ unit supervisor.
Upon his induction he says he, too, feels compassion for his fellow brothers and sisters in the workplace facing a more severe environment than he says he’s ever faced.
“There’s a real move by government to attack unions,” ponders Kelly. “Federally the government is now attacking sick leave and talking about freezing wages, while here at home they’re trying to divide up the unions by taking the supervisors out. We faced a real anti-union sentiment with Grant
Devine but even then it wasn’t as severe as it is now — it makes it very hard for workers. Workers are losing more and more rights and union density is shrinking across North American. Globally, the anti-union sentiment is strong.”
Kelly says he would strongly encourage today’s workers to take a stand in support of their unions.
“Young workers need to really stick with their unions — they can get frustrated with things like seniority, or part-time workers might not appreciate the union brought them the five day week, health plans and LTD plans and all kinds of benefits. Over time people have taken these things for granted and I believe it’s time to not take that for granted and show some solid support.”
Life members reflect on changing labour climate. Ron Kach started his career in social services in the late 1980s in Weyburn before becoming active in SGEU and eventually serving as the union’s treasurer.
Like many long-serving union members now retired, he looks on to the current environment with a mix of hopefulness and sadness for his counterparts in an anti-labour environment.
“There’s been a bit of a decline in the strength of labour with the current government but I think SGEU is coming back stronger and more effective,” reflected Kach while recently catching up with other lifetime members. “It makes me hopeful. The current government is trying to destroy us with their legislation but hopefully us winning this major battle in the Supreme Court will help us turn things around.”
William (Jim) Hayes started his long career as a traffic officer in Swift Current when SGEU was still an association. Hayes was driven to become active as a young unionist because of the conditions he and his fellow workers were facing.
“We were working as much as 16 hours a day with no overtime,” recalls Hayes accompanied by his wife, Eileen by his side sharing all his early memories. “The guys working with me wouldn’t discuss it because they were afraid they’d lose their jobs of course, as was I. But I was taught by my parents to be honest and what was right was right.”
After serving for four years as SGEU’s vice president, Hayes eventually became president just before Barb Byers served as president.
“Barb was speaking a few years back and she publically said it was me who taught her how to be a trade unionist. It made me proud.”
Hayes says the key to being a successful unionist is about character as much as knowledge.
“My main thing was being honest. Honesty is key. Plus you have to be willing to go out and put the hours in if you want to be a trade unionist. I put in long, long hours. Bargain all day, go home and pick Eileen up and go to Prince Albert for a meeting. Just because I believed in it,” said Hayes turning to his lifelong companion who conferred.
“We had four kids and we were a team traveling across the province and putting in the time,” says Eileen. “I believed in what he believed in so our whole family was involved.”
Hayes says he would tell up and coming unionists to stay the course and not get discouraged.
“Sometimes you have to be gentle and persuasive and sometimes you have to be strong and confident. I remember one time Barb (Byers) was getting attacked verbally terribly on something she was trying to put forward — and it wasn’t stopping, it turned into more of a bullying session in my opinion so I just stepped in and shut down her attackers very firmly and calmly — I just said, ‘Stop it. This is what is right and this is the way it has to be’ and her motion was passed. After a lifetime in negotiating and dealing with both sides you learn when to be gentle and when to be firm, but to me, I was always honest. That’s integrity.”
Linda Anweiler spent 37 years in social services and laments all the years of fighting for improvements her current counterparts are yet to realize.
“I do love the fact that we see younger people getting more and more involved with the union,” says Anweiler. “And they have a greater stake in investing because it’s their legacy. We’ve paved the way but the government has taken so much from them that we need to keep fighting and reinforcing that that is their right not to let them take it back.”
Like many of her fellow retirees, Anweiler worked tirelessly on numerous committees and broad efforts to fight for the rights of social workers.
“The workload at that time was too much for any one worker to every accomplish in one day — we had committees, went all through the government and did so much to try to rectify the situation. And it’s still there but it’s even worse now. I feel so bad because it seems there’s so much burn out — people are so overworked they don’t even have the energy to fight back and say no. We’re not going to take this abuse.”
“The government just keeps piling more and more on their staff and nothings been accomplished in 30 years — what’s it going to take. So many people take stress leave and blame themselves.”
Steve Lane was a highways worker for 36 years and agrees. He feels compassion for today’s union workers who he feels are not treated with the same dignity and respect he felt.
“We felt more secure back then — I don’t recall thinking my job was in jeopardy like people do now,” says Lane. “They don’t feel protected and respected.”
Good old days
Randy Holderbein started as a welder in 1975 and remembers events over the years such as the annual SGEU convention as not exactly the professional, efficient and calm working environments they are today.
“We had legendary battles right on our convention floor — one of the main issues back then was seasonal work,” Holderbein recalls. “We fought and fought and fought and that made us grow into the union we are today, they were growing pains.
There were even fist fights — I remember the elevator door opening up and there were two guys fighting and it spilled out into the hall. It was really intense on our way to becoming a union.”
Danny Wilson laughs while adding his thought those young workers today wouldn’t believe how hard he and his early counterparts had to fight for things taken for granted today.
“I don’t know how many strikes I’ve been on, we’ve pounded lots and lots of pavement,” says Wilson who started in highways in 1973.
“They take it for granted — not just in the workplace — but the baby boomers fought for improvement and this generation is not the same and as a result, unions are in for a struggle. As they start losing all these benefits, they might have to fight for them again.”
Sid Wonitowy, who started in highways in 1976, says in those days he could fill rooms to overflowing for meetings and today people are less empathetic.
“People take everything for granted now — they say, ‘Oh, our union will get it for us, and if something goes wrong with the employer, they still blame the union and not their employer. They don’t understand what their union has done for them. It’s a lot more difficult being a steward than it was before.”
Jim Steele, who began his career in 1972, poignantly recalls the general strike of 1979 being a turning point for both labour in province and SGEU.
“That year was a cornerstone. It really was the start of the union demonstrating we’re prepared to take on the world. Everyone pulled together. Over the years we’ve had our ups and downs but at the end of the day we can say since that time we’ve been successful in acting together.
Deb Hawreschuk was also inducted as a life member of SGEU. Hawreschuk had been active for many years in SGEU, within her workplace, within Local 1102, and provincially. She began her employment with the Government of Saskatchewan at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre in the fall of 1981 with the opening of the new Saskatoon Correctional Center. She worked in all of the administrative occupational codes until finally settling in to the position of main receptionist at the facility. Hawreschuk held this position for over 25 years. Deb was the first smiling face staff members saw when they arrived for work. Hawreschuk passed away on April 9, 2014 and is sorely missed. She is survived by her husband Dave Hawreschuk.