Tuesday, April 27, 2004

HEU hurting patients with a futile strike

VICTORIA - Health care workers have blundered into a strike they can't win.
The Hospital Employees' Union has forgotten that bargaining is about getting the best deal possible at the time. It's not about waging a political war, or staging a desperate 'Remember the Alamo' last stand. It's about doing the best you can and surviving to fight another day.
HEU members have a right to be angry. Premier Gordon Campbell told them he wouldn't rip up contracts, and then he did. He said workers in the health care system have nothing to fear from the Liberals, and then cleared the way for thousands of them to be fired and replaced with new people working for much lower wages. Health care workers feel they were lied to and misled by Campbell, and that they are being mistreated.
But their anger has apparently blinded them to reality.
The union's big issue is job security. By ripping up their contracts the government set the stage for wide scale privatization. HEU members have provided cleaning services for hospitals, for example, with pay scales of up to $19 an hour and generous benefits.
Now health authorities have been signing contracts with private companies to provide the same services, and firing the HEU workers. The new employer - in most cases helped by a sweetheart contract signed with the IWA before a single worker is hired - pays about $12 an hour, with few benefits.
So far about 5,000 jobs have been lost to contracting out. Another 10,000 of the union's 43,000 members face the same fate.
It's rough treatment, and a fundamental betrayal.
But the union members had a chance to soften the blow last year. Their leadership and the government negotiated an agreement that would have limited the job losses to 5,600 and extended the contract. In return the union would have seen wages rolled back by up to $1 an hour and granted other concessions.
The HEU brass recommended the deal, but 57 per cent of the members who voted turned the deal down.
That was a big mistake.
Now the union is on strike, seeking cost of living increases. The employers want concessions that would cut costs by an average $6,000 per employee and is pressing ahead with layoffs. And when the government ends the strike - as it will within days - the imposed settlement will be much closer to the employers' proposals.
The current contracts are too generous. Pay levels are the highest in Canada, in some cases significantly higher than other provinces. (Laundry workers in B.C. have a top rate of $18.65 an hour; the rate is nine per cent higher than Ontario and 44 per cent higher than Alberta.) The work week is 36 hours (increasing that to 37.5 hours, without increasing pay, would save $70 million a year). The union contract calls for seven weeks' vacation after 20 years, and nine weeks after 29.
The contracts are a symptom of our broken system of health care labour relations. During the NDP years, unions had little reason to compromise because they knew that job action would likely be resolved through a favourable settlement. Now employers have little reason to compromise, because they know that they'll come out the winners.
It's a system that hurts patients and leads to constant turmoil.
The HEU should have learned from other unions like the BCGEU, which treated recent contract talks as an exercise in damage control. They accepted some concessions, rolled over the current contracts and won continued job security for all members. That was a prudent course, (especially given poll results that show the NDP leading the Liberals).
It's not too late for that approach, especially if the Liberals offer the union a face-saving way out. The NDP proposes a freeze on new layoffs for 90 days and a mandatory return to bargaining. Some variation on that approach could provide at least the chance for a solution.
Footnote: What would Carole James do? The NDP now has a chance of forming the next government. If the NDP is elected in 14 months, will she anger union members by leaving wages at reduced levels, or put hundreds of millions back into the health budget for wages?

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