|Union rights for construction trades... but not for these women Photo: NS News|
It’s tough to buy Premier Christy Clark’s sudden commitment to people’s right to organize a union.
Not when her government continues to make it impossible for thousands of low-paid workers in seniors’ care homes to join a union and freely negotiate workable collective agreements.
Clark over-ruled B.C. Hydro, the provincial bureaucracy and several cabinet ministers last week and ordered the Crown corporation to ease its efforts to keep the Site C dam a non-union project.
She singled out measures designed to prevent employees from deciding to form a union. "I don’t believe that’s legal, I don’t believe it’s right," Clark said. "I believe they should have the right to organize and BC Hydro can’t take that away."
Clark should meet with the employees at Inglewood Care Centre in West Vancouver. They decided to join the Hospital Employees’ Union in late 2013, and set out to negotiate a first collective agreement with Carecorp, the contractor that provides labour to Inglewood and residences.
By December, the two sides were far apart and the union issued strike notice.
And Carecorp responded by firing more than 230 employees. It is giving up its contract with Unicare, the corporation that operates Inglewood and six other similar residences in B.C., Alberta and Washington.
Unicare will find a new contractor for Inglewood. The employees will lose their jobs, although many will be rehired by the new contractor, without seniority and at new wages and benefits.
And the union will disappear.
Sure, the new employees and the HEU or some other union can go through the difficult certification process again.
But that’s a tough sell once employees know that if they do, they’ll just get fired again. What’s the point?
The contractor shuffle has become common practice across B.C., as care homes and seniors’ residences - privately owned, but also funded by health authorities - change contractors once employees unionize and try to negotiate a contract.
Bad for the employees, obviously, and bad for residents of the homes as wholesale staff changes every few years create training problems and a lack of continuity.
And certainly a concern for Christy Clark if she really believes employees have a right to organize.
The B.C. labour code allows employers to contract out work, unless an existing collective agreement prohibits it.
But unionized employees outside the health and social services sectors have the right to appeal to the labour board if they believe that the decision to contract out, or change contractors, is aimed at getting rid of the union. The board can impose remedies, and the union certification and collective agreement can be forced on the new contractor.
That changed for health and social service employees after 2003, when the Liberal government used legislation to remove prohibitions on contracting out from their collective agreements. The legislation also said the labour code sections on successor rights would not apply to these groups of employees.
The government wanted to cut spending. It chose to achieve the goal by weakening the unions, making it harder for employees to organize and driving down wages and benefits for people working in hospitals, care homes and community social services.
It worked. And those provisions survived the Supreme Court of Canada that found many other aspects of the government’s legislation attacking the unions were illegal.
But if Christy Clark really believes that employees have a right to organize, and that it is “wrong” to try and prevent that from happening, then she needs to fix this problem.
Labour law is about balance. And the current law tilts the balance entirely in the employers’ favour in the health and social services sectors.
Sure, the employees can decide to form a union, just like other workers. They can try to negotiate a first contract, never an easy task.
But they can’t really bargain like other employees. Because they know that the care home can cancel the contract with one service provider and sign a deal with another contractor. The employees are on the street. The union ceases to exist. And unlike public-sector managers, the employees get no severance. The Employment Standards Act just requires working notice.
And the government has never made an effective argument for denying one group of employees the rights enjoyed by everyone else in the province.
The cynical might argue Clark’s Site C position was motivated by a desire to stay on the good side of Tom Sigurdson and the B.C. and Yukon Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents workers on big construction projects. Or by the lawsuit the the council had filed against B.C. Hydro’s plans.
But assume the premier does believe employees have the right to decide to form a union and try to negotiate a collective agreement (even if they are ultimately unsuccessful).
If it was wrong for B.C. Hydro to deny those basic rights to construction workers, how can it be less wrong for the provincial government to do the same for care aides, cooks and other workers in the health and social services sector?