Friday, April 30, 2004

Health care hammer hurts all British Columbians

VICTORIA - There were no winners in the health care battle.
Employees lost, obviously. Hospital Employees Union members face significant pay and benefit cuts, and thousands of them still face being fired as their work is taken over by private contractors.
The government lost credibility. It walked all over the rights of 43,000 British Columbians without even a nod to fairness, and showed it can not be trusted. Premier Gordon Campbell's promise not to rip up contracts and his pledge that support workers in the health care system had nothing to fear from a Liberal government have both been proved false.
And patients have lost. Waiting lists have been climbing since the election. This dispute will make things worse.
There was no alternative to a legislated end, no matter how offensive it is to see government use legislation to cut employees' wages. (Wages that government had agreed to, and that Campbell knew about when he made his pre-election promise.)
Both sides could have handled this more effectively. The union members turned down a deal last year - one recommended by their leadership - which would have traded concessions for an end to job losses to privatization. They missed an opportunity to limit the damage.
But the government ignored its responsibility to show fairness. Those job protection provisions were acceptable a year ago. Finding a way to include them in the legislated end to the dispute would have shown good faith and a recognition that using legislation to cut wages is inherently unfair and an abuse of government power. Instead, the government rejected balance.
The hardship for employees is serious. The union has the option of working with an arbitrator to achieve the equivalent of a 10-per-cent wage cut by reducing benefits, an option which it would be wise to exercise.
The alternatives is a straight 11-per-cent wage cut. A hospital support staff worker being paid $34,000 a year will lose about $3,700. Families have bought homes and made other commitments based on the wages they had negotiated. Now that money has been taken away by government order. (The pay cuts are retroactive to April 1; employees are going to owe the government money.)
It's done now, although much fallout lies ahead.
But it's past time to acknowledge that health care labour relations in B.C. don't work, and haven't for years.
Government interference is the norm. Under the NDP, unions had little incentive to bargain because they were likely to benefit from an imposed or politically brokered deal. (That's how B.C. workers ended up with the highest wages, shortest work week and most generous vacation benefits in Canada.)
Under the Liberals, employers know that they will come out the winners in any negotiated deal so they have little incentive to bargain.
The result is a series of disruptions and contracts that don't reflect economic reality.
There are potential solutions. Some form of dispute resolution, followed by binding arbitration, could encourage productive negotiation. Neither side would likely to be keen on risking an unfavourable arbitration award.
There's one big problem with that option. The government agreed to binding arbitration in the last doctors' dispute, and then refused to implement the award when it didn't like the results. No union - or business for that matter - can agree to arbitration which is binding only if the government likes the outcome.
It's not just the mechanics of bargaining that need fixing. In this dispute the HEU has been shown to be an unworkable bargaining unit. The union includes 43,000 members, from skilled technicians to cleaners. Their issues and aims are too diverse to allow effective bargaining.
The system needs reform. That will be extremely difficult, given the current poisonous atmosphere and the Liberals' record of broken promises.
But a way has to be found - perhaps through a public inquiry - to fix a system that continue to produce chaos, conflict and disruption.
Footnote: MLA Blair Lekstrom is concerned about the retroactive provisions; he said he might not have voted for the bill if he had understood them, blaming the overnight debate for his confusion. MLA Kevin Krueger isn't - he used the opening prayer to ask God to help HEU workers do the right thing and give thanks for the legislation.

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