Friday, March 20, 2009

Nurses find way around coming wage freeze

It looks like the B.C. Nurses Union has retired Solidarity Forever in favour of Take the Money and Run as a rallying song.
The nurses' contract, like collective agreements for pretty much the whole public sector, was set to expire at the end of March in 2010.
That's also when the government has said it will introduce a two-year public sector wage freeze in response to the economic downturn.
The union wasn't keen on a wage freeze, naturally enough. So it approached the government last month to propose a contract extension now, more than a year before it expires, in return for salary increases.
The government liked the idea. It agreed to extend the contract for two years, until April 2012, with a three-per-cent raise in each year. The union and government call it a "labour market adjustment," but it's a wage hike.
Like all collective bargaining, the deal is a trade-off. The nurses' union gets a good guaranteed raise for members at a time of huge economic uncertainty.
The government, which is working on a similar deal with doctors, avoids the threat of disruptions to the health care system in the summer of 2010 and, perhaps, attracts some needed new nurses and doctors.
It's an interesting calculation on the part of both sides. For the union, there's a wage increase above the rate of inflation. And there's no worry about a newly elected government getting fierce about a wage freeze.
For the government, there's a fixed increase for one of the unions that tends to enter contract disputes with public sympathy. And by grabbing the chance to settle with doctors and nurses, it has isolated the other health-sector unions, especially the Hospital Employees Union.
The HEU represents some skilled technical employees and licensed practical nurses, who have similar cases for a "labour market adjustment."
But many members work in areas calling for few specialized skills. In a slow economy, it's not hard to find people to do the work. And those employees are also less likely to win public support than the heirs to Florence Nightingale.
A common front, or at least a co-ordinated bargaining strategy, might have produced larger overall gains. Even if that was unlikely - after all, the HEU signed first in 2006 - the union fears that the raises for nurses and doctors will preclude similar adjustments for its 43,000 members.
But the nurses' union has a legal responsibility to represent its members' interests, not the needs of other health-care workers.
The deal is a reminder that contracts covering almost every public sector worker, from teachers to direct government employees to hospital workers expire a little more than a year from now.
Finance Minister Colin Hansen's budget is based on a wage freeze in the new deals and there is no allowance for any extra expenses. The nurses' deal will cost $120 million in year two, I estimate, money the government doesn't have in its budget plan.
The government goes into these talks with some goodwill. The last round of settlements, which included bonuses of about $4,000 per employee, were well received.
But goodwill has a short shelf life when it comes to labour relations in this province. And the government has hinted at big staff cuts and, possibly, significant layoffs. If those happen, talks will be tougher.
The case for a wage freeze should be strong by next year. But unions - the B.C. Teachers Federation comes to mine - will still be looking for gains.
Taxpayers, though, might not be seeing raises in their workplaces - if they have workplaces. And they might be crabby if their taxes go up to pay for public sector workers' raises.
And on top of all this, add the political question of which party would best represent the public interest in negotiating the next round of contacts.
Footnote: The agreement includes provisions for a nurses' union-government-health authority committee to work on workload, management, job scope and other issues that affect nurses and the system. The government hopes the co-operative approach will result in savings and efficiencies.


Anonymous said...

Community Social Service workers have a MARKET ADJUSTMENT PREMIUM in their current collective agreement: "CSSEA, at the request of the Employers or the Union Bargaining Association, will meet with the Union Bargaining Association to discuss the implementation of temporary market adjustments. Market adjustments will be in accordance with government policy in order to address competitive labour market
pressures that are impacting the Employers’ ability to attract and retain qualified staff and deliver social
services. Any market adjustments will not be implemented unreasonably."

As well, the Community Social Service agreement has a FISCAL DIVIDEND clause that kicks in if the "Fiscal
Dividend Bonus may be paid from a one-time fund (the "Fund") generated out of monies, in excess
of $150 million, surplus to the BC government, as defined in the Province’s audited financial statements,
for the fiscal year 2009-10." I don't think anyone really expects the government to be in surplus anytime soon.

The agreement includes provisions for a nurses' union-government-health authority committee to work on workload, management, job scope and other issues that affect nurses and the system. The BCTF just walked away from a similar committee - I hope the BCNU does better.

Anonymous said...

Paul, BCTF already have a number for 2010 in their contract. If Jock Finlayson and the government prognosticators are correct about 2011, the teachers will be negotiating in much rosier economic circumstances.

Anonymous said...

This settlement could be construed as putting the lie to any real wage freeze, and sets a precedent for other union bargaining units, next year, to point to when demanding their 3% increases. As it should be. The leadership of our government set the precedent of 15% as a goal for salary increases, didn't they? Hypocrites!

NRF said...

There is a significant shortage of experienced nurses in a number of specialties. Hospitals cannot function without RNs working vast amounts of overtime, particularly in critical care. The wage adjustment recognizes the need to attract and retain vital nursing staff and, at 3% a year, the increase will have rather little effect.

If you run an intensive care unit with fewer staff than required, unnecessary deaths will certainly result. In many occupations, staff shortages are inconvenient, perhaps slowing production. In health care, staff shortages may be lethal.

NRF said...

Further to my comment above regarding overtime levels is that when hospitals pay for overtime coverage they do so at double rate. If they could recruit and retain more staff - turnover is high in these stressful areas - they could reduce the total wage bill by minimizing premium pay. Alternatively, hospitals could pay higher rates for specialized nurses to encourage more entrants to these areas.

From long experience, I know the staffing problems go well beyond remuneration. A real solution requires comprehensive management changes. Hospitals today are operated by managers with no comprehensive medical training and medical staff with no comprehensive management training. The Province and universities should create intensive programs that brings that recognize the diverse skill needed by health care management.