It was on a Friday in the early summer of 2012 when workers at the Monterey Place Continuing Care Facility were locked out by their employer. For 283 days, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees stood in solidarity with their members along the picket line.
Among those standing in support was Bobby-Joe Borodey, a member of the union who would eventually become its vice-president. Joining her on the same picket line was a grandmother whose job was to support her daughter and grandchildren.
“A lot of times people are asked, ‘why would you do this if it means sacrifice to you and your family?’ Ultimately, it’s because it serves a greater good.” says Borodey. “The most real change that’s achieved comes with a sacrifice. What she [the grandmother] shared with me is a common thread that I find, basically throughout my whole time in the labour movement.”
Borodey’s journey with the movement began soon after she graduated from university, despite having no family history with organized labour. Now, as one of her union’s top leaders, she helps fellow members survive the pandemic and laws aimed at weakening unions.
Borodey became a union member when she was hired by Olds College in 2002 as an admissions officer — helping students enroll in the same institute she attended. But she was unaware that job made her a part of a union until the end of her first year.
She was approached by a co-worker and fellow member, AUPE secretary-treasurer Jason Heistad, who convinced her to attend a young activist’s conference at the former Mayfield Hotel in Edmonton. Despite her family having no prior experience or background in unionized trades, she decided to go.
“It really opened my eyes to what a union was, what opportunities and benefits they could provide. What I really remember, though, is that this was an opportunity that gave workers a voice.”
During that 2003 conference, which featured the former union vice-president Guy Smith as the speaker, she learned about public speaking, which resonated with her.
“A lot of times, the ability to speak with confidence comes from the fact that you’ve put in the time, the due diligence and knowledge to speak in that fashion.”
Listening to those speeches helped inspire her.
“I just remember looking up there thinking, ‘that is something that I’m going to do one day, I know that I can do that.’ I just kind of feel like from that moment on, I always knew that that was a goal of mine.”
That goal would be realized when Borodey’s successful campaign in 2019 allowed her to win the union vice-presidency and represent members in the Calgary area.
“I believe that if you’re going to be successful in this role, then you really have to have a servant leadership mentality. But you also have to have the mentality that should be that focused on serving the members, serving the people that have elected you in such a way that you can facilitate change and be impactful.”
Conflict with the UCP government
Facilitating such change can be difficult due to the pandemic, where it has become easier for members to seclude themselves, creating difficulties for the union who may not be able to tell whether or not members need assistance.
“Outreach at a time like this [is] paramount. We’ve had to get very creative with how we do that. We’ve had to go a little old school in how we do that as well. Utilizing such things as snail mail has been proven to be positive in a few instances.”
Even if the organization faces these challenges, they are not alone. Like dowels on a layered cake, allies from many sectors have emerged to stand in support and solidarity to help keep each other stable.
“Sometimes when you’ve got a common enemy, whether that’s the pandemic or the UCP government, a lot of times that almost forces people to come together. In this specific instance, I think that could work in our favour.”
In October 2020, the union would come together again to fight one of their common enemies.
During that month, the Kenney government released plans for increasing privatization within the health sector, resulting in around 11,000 jobs being cut across the province. In response to those cuts, Borodey has supported the wildcat strikes that have been popping up around Alberta, acting as Calgary’s local spokesperson for the union in media interviews.
“We’re dealing with a Conservative government that we’ve never seen the likes of in this province. They’re bent on taking health care and all public services in this province in a direction that’s shameful, disgusting, and will do nothing to benefit Albertans.”
Telling the union story
Another persistent thorn in the union side has been a piece of NDP legislation from 2016 that allowed organizations with striking employees to retain a portion of their workers as essential services.
“There are a lot of hoops that you need to jump through,[and] there are a lot of boxes that need to be checked. The government has done a really good job of making it virtually impossible to ever attain that position. And that’s atrocious, it’s disgusting. The ability to withdraw our labour is the leverage that we need to get fair and equal working conditions.”
Further strengthening the employer’s position, the legislation allows them to lock out workers to pressure them into accepting demands. Borodey has been working to educate union members about the threats to their rights.
“We [need] a good thorough working knowledge of what the issues are, how a union can be beneficial and powerful, and how together we can force change, for the better, and not just for us, but for the citizens we serve.”
With her focus on improving awareness of the issues that affect her members, Borodey’s future aim is to improve the union’s ability to move as one body.
“I’m not going to say that I’ve done anything better than those that have come before me. I think that I have a skill set that resonates with a lot of members. It’s really all about how you can foster relationships with other people and help them grow as individuals.”