VICTORIA - The Liberals did an astonishingly bad job of handling the
health care strike.
They bumbled and bullied and made what was inevitably going to be a bad
situation much, much worse.
The government has a good case for wage and benefit cuts, particularly
after overly generous contract awards under the NDP. (A single mom
working two jobs shouldn't pay more in taxes so health union members
only have to work a 36-hour week.).
And since the Hospital Employees' Union could be expected to fight any
concessions, it's tough to imagine any resolution without some
brinksmanship and disruption.
But the Liberals made a complete mess of this.
It's reasonable to seek cost reductions. It's reasonable to use
legislation to end the strike, deciding the health care system is too
fragile to sustain any more cuts.
But the Liberals had weeks to prepare back-to-work legislation that
would be pragmatic and effective.
They also had an obvious model. The government and the HEU leadership
reached an agreement last year that would have seen wage and benefit
cuts in return for a limit on job loss to privatization. The leadership
recommended it, but the deal was voted down by 57 per cent of the members.
That's a narrow defeat. And the LIberals also knew that just under half
the membership voted. That means only 13,000 of some 43,000 members felt
strongly enough opposed to the deal to cast a no vote.
That tells me that a fair back-to-work bill based on the agreement
reached last year would have worked. Employees and unions would grumble,
but they would return to work. And remember, the government had decided
last year that the deal made sense and was affordable.
That's not what the Liberals did. They opted for legislation that was a
one-sided attack on the union.
The legislation ending the strike imposed - as the base - an unpaid
1.5-hour increase in the work week and an 11-per-cent wage cut. The wage
cut was retroactive to April 1, so employees would be paying back money
from pay cheques they had already cashed. How would most of us feel if
the boss said he wanted to roll back our wages, starting last month, and
could we give him $300? (Even though unions always expect employers to
come up with retroactive pay increases.)
There was no privatization job protection, or any other small win for
The Liberals touted an option that would have let the HEU agree to have
a government-appointed arbitrator come up with combined pay and benefit
cuts that produced similar savings. (All the Liberal MLAs present voted
against an amendment that would have called for an arbitrator acceptable
to both parties.)
Gordon Campbell has been the peek-a-boo premier through all this. He
didn't speak during the 12-hour debate. He skipped the legislature the
next day. His only comments came in a couple of brief, puzzling
appearances on BCTV.
He urged the unions to accept the arbitration option, claiming the
arbitrator could deal with job protection - even though the bill doesn't
mention that option, and Health Minister Colin Hansen said that was
because he doesn't want any cap on contracting out.
And Campbell suggested that if employees would give up a week of
vacation and move to a 40-hour week with no wage increase, then they
would lose only a little in wage rates.
Sounds simple. But those two changes would translate into another 5,100
HEU members losing their jobs. That's hardly a strong selling point.
Now, after huge disruptions and a serious blow to the economy, the
Liberals are doing what they should have done in the first place.
The retroactivity requirement - which was either mean-spirited or dumb -
is gone. Additional job losses to privatization are capped at 600.
The same deal should have formed the basis for the back-to-work
legislation in the first place. And if the government had done that,
this damaging confrontation could have been avoided.
Footnote: How did this happen? One answer is that Liberal MLAs seemed to
have turned off their minds during debate on the back-to-work bill. In
hours of detailed examination, there was exactly one question from a
Liberal backbencher. Not one Liberal asked about retroactivity or any
other element of the deal.