Friday, April 30, 2004

Health care hammer hurts all British Columbians

VICTORIA - There were no winners in the health care battle.
Employees lost, obviously. Hospital Employees Union members face significant pay and benefit cuts, and thousands of them still face being fired as their work is taken over by private contractors.
The government lost credibility. It walked all over the rights of 43,000 British Columbians without even a nod to fairness, and showed it can not be trusted. Premier Gordon Campbell's promise not to rip up contracts and his pledge that support workers in the health care system had nothing to fear from a Liberal government have both been proved false.
And patients have lost. Waiting lists have been climbing since the election. This dispute will make things worse.
There was no alternative to a legislated end, no matter how offensive it is to see government use legislation to cut employees' wages. (Wages that government had agreed to, and that Campbell knew about when he made his pre-election promise.)
Both sides could have handled this more effectively. The union members turned down a deal last year - one recommended by their leadership - which would have traded concessions for an end to job losses to privatization. They missed an opportunity to limit the damage.
But the government ignored its responsibility to show fairness. Those job protection provisions were acceptable a year ago. Finding a way to include them in the legislated end to the dispute would have shown good faith and a recognition that using legislation to cut wages is inherently unfair and an abuse of government power. Instead, the government rejected balance.
The hardship for employees is serious. The union has the option of working with an arbitrator to achieve the equivalent of a 10-per-cent wage cut by reducing benefits, an option which it would be wise to exercise.
The alternatives is a straight 11-per-cent wage cut. A hospital support staff worker being paid $34,000 a year will lose about $3,700. Families have bought homes and made other commitments based on the wages they had negotiated. Now that money has been taken away by government order. (The pay cuts are retroactive to April 1; employees are going to owe the government money.)
It's done now, although much fallout lies ahead.
But it's past time to acknowledge that health care labour relations in B.C. don't work, and haven't for years.
Government interference is the norm. Under the NDP, unions had little incentive to bargain because they were likely to benefit from an imposed or politically brokered deal. (That's how B.C. workers ended up with the highest wages, shortest work week and most generous vacation benefits in Canada.)
Under the Liberals, employers know that they will come out the winners in any negotiated deal so they have little incentive to bargain.
The result is a series of disruptions and contracts that don't reflect economic reality.
There are potential solutions. Some form of dispute resolution, followed by binding arbitration, could encourage productive negotiation. Neither side would likely to be keen on risking an unfavourable arbitration award.
There's one big problem with that option. The government agreed to binding arbitration in the last doctors' dispute, and then refused to implement the award when it didn't like the results. No union - or business for that matter - can agree to arbitration which is binding only if the government likes the outcome.
It's not just the mechanics of bargaining that need fixing. In this dispute the HEU has been shown to be an unworkable bargaining unit. The union includes 43,000 members, from skilled technicians to cleaners. Their issues and aims are too diverse to allow effective bargaining.
The system needs reform. That will be extremely difficult, given the current poisonous atmosphere and the Liberals' record of broken promises.
But a way has to be found - perhaps through a public inquiry - to fix a system that continue to produce chaos, conflict and disruption.
Footnote: MLA Blair Lekstrom is concerned about the retroactive provisions; he said he might not have voted for the bill if he had understood them, blaming the overnight debate for his confusion. MLA Kevin Krueger isn't - he used the opening prayer to ask God to help HEU workers do the right thing and give thanks for the legislation.

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?