Monday, May 10, 2004

IWA the Liberals' partner in health sector wage cuts

VICTORIA - Back in 1994 it would have been hard to predict that Dave Haggard and the IWA would become the Liberals' allies in privatizing health sector jobs and cutting employees' wages.
The Liberals could have shifted the work to private companies without the IWA's help. But it would have been a heck of a lot harder and slower without the union.
What a difference a decade makes. Back in 1994 Haggard and the IWA were waging war on MacMillan Bloedel over work done by construction companies using members of "rat unions." The unions were employer-controlled and negotiated inferior contracts, said Haggard. The IWA threatened boycotts and the dispute led to violent clashes in Port Alberni.
Flash forward. The Liberals want health authorities to be able fire Hospital Employees Union members and contract with private companies to do the work. The goal is to save money, largely by hiring new employees at much lower wages and with fewer benefits.
The Liberals could clear the way for the changes. They used legislation to remove job protection in health care workers ' contracts and eliminate successor rights.
But that still left a risk. The private companies bidding on the contracts knew they could probably fill the jobs with new workers who would work for much lower wages.
But they couldn't be guaranteed that those wages would stay low. The HEU would almost certainly try and organize the workplaces. The employees might decide to form their own association, or hook up with some other large union. Even if they didn't, the threat would always be there, creating uncertainty for the companies.
And that's where Haggard and the IWA came in. Before a single employee was hired, the IWA sat down with the three companies bidding for most of the work and signed a contract that provided low wages and few benefits.
When hiring started, job applicants were told they had to sign an IWA membership card before they would be interviewed. The companies and the IWA co-operated to force them into the union, and subject them to a contract they never had a chance to see, let alone vote on.
It was a good deal for the companies, which got an insurance policy against employees deciding to form a union and advance their own issues.
The government got lower bids for the work, since the companies didn't have to worry about their labour costs going up.
The IWA picked up a lot of dues revenue, without having to go through the hassle of convincing the workers that they actually wanted to hand part of their wages.
The employees didn't do quite so well. There's lots of talk about the efficiencies of private companies, and there are some benefits. But the real savings simply come from paying people less. Contracting out laundry services meant wages for an employee went from $34,000 under the HEU to $21,000 under the IWA contract, with benefits taking a similar cut.
The employees, in short, got what looks very much like the kind of contract Haggard used to rail against.
The employees could decertify, of course, but that's slow and difficult.
And in any case the government effectively took that option away, passing legislation last year to strip these employees of the successor rights enjoyed by employees at every other private business in the province. A health sector company facing a union or contract it doesn't like can fire the employees and walk away. A new operator then takes over, free to sign a more accommodating contract with a friendly union like the IWA. (This isn't theoretical; it has already happened.)
It's a sorry role for the IWA, one that has embarrassed many members and drawn sanctions from the Canadian Labour Congress.
And it's surprising that the union's members have stood by and watched as the IWA played a part in reducing not just wages, but the basic rights of workers.
Footnote: Haggard has been anointed as a federal Liberal candidate in New Westminster-Coquitlam, spared the trouble of a nomination battle thanks to Paul Martin's intervention. It's a reminder of how out of touch Martin is with B.C. To beat Conservative incumbent Paul Forseth, Haggard needs to capture votes from the NDP. Given the IWA's health role, that's not going to happen.

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