It's been a combative year in B.C. on the labour-relations front.
At different times, transit and school-support workers, forestry employees, teachers, and university faculty members have all been embroiled in disputes with their employers.
But in Vancouver, the longest-lasting and most contentious job action involved workers at four luxurious downtown hotels.
The woman who led that fight, Zailda Chan, is the first B.C.–wide union president of Chinese ancestry. And her story of migration has things in common with some of the workers she represents as the elected head of Unite Here! Local 40.
In an interview at the Straight’s office, Chan said her parents were born in villages in Guangdong province in southern China and moved to Venezuela.
That’s where Chan was born and where she and her brother were the only students of Chinese ancestry in the local school. The “in-your-face racism” that she experienced in Venezuela fuelled her lifelong passion for social justice.
“When you’re a kid and you’re feeling racism, it’s just so wrong,” Chan said. “My family accepted it. ‘That’s how it’s going to be. We’re not from here.’ Well, I said, ‘I was born here.’ ”
She added that she grew up in a traditional Chinese family, with her father demonstrating patriarchal attitudes about the different roles for girls and boys. She refused to accept the notion that women should have fewer opportunities in life than men or that they should be confined to looking after the home.
Chan also experienced hardship after immigrating to Canada at the age of 13 with her family. When she arrived, she spoke very little English, and she, her parents, and her three siblings lived in a basement apartment in East Vancouver.
Her mother was often the sole income earner, living paycheque to paycheque in the garment industry.
“She did piecework for 10 cents a piece,” Chan recalled. “I worked at the PNE in high school as my summer job, and that was necessary to help my mom. And my dad had odd jobs here and there.”
She acknowledged that the labour movement didn’t do much for her family when she was young, so she wasn’t thinking of working in this field when she enrolled at Simon Fraser University.
But Chan's interest in immigrants’ rights led her to become an activist with the antiracist Bus Riders Union. Later, she became an organizer for Unite Here, visiting workers’ homes to hear their stories.
Chan said they told her that they didn’t feel the union took their concerns seriously in the past. This grassroots organizing coincided with the union more aggressively recruiting leaders in the workplace to join union committees.
“We train the leaders on how to fight,” Chan said. “And we have all kinds of conversations with them about their lives—and about their dreams, what is it that frustrates them—and we connect with them on a human level.”
This involves asking them how they feel about coworkers, as well as their goals for their kids.
“If there’s a committee, there’s power,” Chan said.
Last year, she was elected president of Local 40. Chan’s family history helped her identify with members of her union, many of whom are immigrants also living paycheque to paycheque.
She acknowledged that when it came time to fight this year for better working conditions and an end to sexual harassment at work, members needed to be educated about challenges that their peers were facing.
“We had to have conversations between departments,” Chan said. “Housekeepers had to tell the cooks what they care about. And the servers had to tell the banquet servers what they care about.”
The end result was an amazing level of solidarity when the workers finally went on strike. Members of Unite Here! Local 40 at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia finally reached a tentative agreement on November 17 after a 59-day strike; other members at the Pinnacle Harbourfront Vancouver, Hyatt Regency, and Westin Bayshore were out for almost a month.
At one point, Chan was sitting across from a bunch of hotel executives—“old white guys”—who questioned her leadership.
“I was even asked, ‘Who’s in charge? Who makes the decision?’ ” Chan said. “I had to say, ‘I’m in charge. I make the decisions here.’ ”
She doubts that she would have been asked this were she an older white male.
What stood out for her was the tenacity of her members during the strike. They were determined to gain real improvements in the workplace rather than settling for annual wage increases of 50 or 60 cents per hour.
Chan said that members would look her in the eye and ask if she could promise a victory. Chan said that she couldn't guarantee it, but it was only possible if they kept up the fight.
She added that the hotel companies underestimated the resolve of the workers and even tried to pit different departments against one another in contract talks. But in the end, Chan insisted that the workers were successful, winning important concessions in a number of areas.
"These hotel companies didn't think we had it in us to, one, go on strike, and two, to strike for as long as we did."
She credited the support of other unions for putting pressure on the employers to resolve the dispute.
"It's been a privilege to be in this role—and to be able to take the needs and the frustrations of hotel workers in the city and transform them into this fight, this industry-level fight," Chan said near the end of the interview. "As a woman, as somebody under 40, you feel underestimated a lot and doubted in many different circles, even in progressive circles.
"You feel doubted and underestimated," she repeated. "But I feel that's what's in common between hotel workers—our members—and me. We both feel the same way. In spite of that, we put ourselves out there and proved many people wrong."