One of the key organizers responsible for unionizing home care workers in British Columbia has died at 89. Home support worker Peggy Schima passed away in her home of Powell River earlier this month.
In 1987, Peggy was one of the last remaining members of the Service, Office and Retail Workers Union of Canada (SORWUC), a tiny but fierce feminist union that organized Canada’s chartered banks. SORWUC was struggling and members were looking for a new union.
But, as Schima recalled, none of the health care unions wanted home care workers. “We were told point blank: you don’t fit in with our union. You are domestics,” Peggy said in a video interview. Then one day a shop steward at Safeway suggested contacting her union, UFCW 1518. “We said, look, we don’t fit in there either but everybody else is turning us down.” So Peggy and her fellow steward Sue made the call.
“One sunny late afternoon, the rep from UFCW arrived here in Powell River and we had a very constructive meeting. Sue and I must have asked at least 600 questions and we got the impression that those people are at least listening to us!” Once SORWUC merged with UFCW 1518, Peggy and Sue set about organizing home care workers across the province. “That was the important part. We knew there were so many home support workers throughout BC that needed union protection, needed better wages, needed somebody to back them up.”
Peggy continued: “The big adventure of organizing took off! Sue and I went all over BC, from the coast to the interior and met a lot of wonderful people. We struggled at times, going back to certain home support workers over and over, to explain the benefits of being in a union.”
Today more than 2200 community health members belong to UFCW 1518 – thanks in no small part to Peggy’s early organizing efforts. “Peggy Schima was a truly remarkable woman. She was trailblazer and a strong UFCW 1518 activist,” said Secretary-Treasurer Kim Novak. “The tireless work she did in organizing our community health members around the province fundamentally changed the working conditions and rights for these workers. I know her legacy will continue to inspire members for decades to come.”
Last May, UFCW 1518 invited Peggy to be a keynote speaker at its Health Care Conference. Although unable to travel, Peggy sent a letter with words of inspiration that were read to delegates, who were moved to both laughter and tears. She told of a late night bargaining session that highlighted the creativity and effectiveness of home care workers:
It was early hours of the morning, 1 or 2 a.m., when a group of home support workers walked into the meeting room that was full of tired and frustrated union members and management…and the ladies all had pillows stuffed up inside their blouses, looking “ pregnant”….making a clear point that we were a bit stuck on the maternity section of the the contract…After much applause and laughter, we managed to get it straightened out and finished right quick that night!
Earlier this month, just days before Peggy passed away, the union nominated her for the Joy Langan Award, which is presented at the BC Federation of Labour Convention to recognize an exceptional woman for her work in the labour movement.
“Peggy encapsulates everything this award represents,” affirmed Secretary-Treasurer Novak. “She was an exemplary trade unionist and lifelong dedicated member of UFCW 1518 who will never be forgotten.”
Click here to read UFCW 1518’s letter nominating Peggy Schima for the Joy Langan Award.