Thursday, July 14, 2005

IWA's health care deals causing big problems

VICTORIA - Usually corruption charges against a union local are a problem for the members, and the parent union.
This time it's different.
The union under a cloud is United Steelworkers Local 3567, the former IWA local that signed sweetheart contracts with the companies that took over health sector support services.
A Steelworkers' audit found big problems at the local, including "extremely serious financial misconduct." The auditors found the local was spending $2,000 a month on alcohol, had misused union money and made unauthorized loans.
The local, and its president Sonny Ghag, were already reviled in the union community for signing what looked like sweetheart deals with the health sector companies. Now those agreements are unravelling, and the labour stability they were supposed to provide is falling apart. The current hearings into the local will just hasten the process.
The Liberals saw privatizing health sector support services as a way to reduce costs, with the the savings coming mainly by cutting wages.
But the plan faced some problems. The people doing the work had contracts that limited contracting out. The labour code said that even if a new company took over the service, the contracts would apply. And Gordon Campbell had specifically promised to honour the Hospital Employees' Union contracts.
He didn't. The government passed a law to remove job protections from the union contracts, and exempt the private companies from successorship obligations. The health authorities were free to fire their employees, and sign deals with the companies.
But the health authorities were still nervous. What if they contracted the work out to a corporation, but the employees of that company decided to form a union? The whole deal was built on reducing wagelevels - firing someone paid $650 a week to do laundry, and replacing them with someone paid $400 a week. If they had a real union, the employees would soon be seeking higher wages.
Some of the companies were ready to take their chances, prepared to address employee concerns directly, or deal with a union if that was the employees' choice. The health authorities said no way.
Enter the IWA, ready to negotiate contracts with the three main companies bidding for the work before a single employee was hired. Job applicants had to first join the union and agree to accept the contract terms before they were interviewed by the company. (They weren't allowed to take the contract home and read it.)
The contracts weren't great, and obviously didn't address employees' concerns - there were no employees when they were drafted. The employees never got the chance to decide if they wanted a union, or the terms of their contract.
The union local did well though. The IWA’s forest-sector contracts include an education fund, paid for with a three-cent-an-hour employer contribution and managed jointly by the industry and the union. The health contracts called for 15 cents an hour to be paid into a fund controlled solely by the local.
The whole arrangement is now falling apart. The HEU has successfully challenged many of the certifications at the labour board, and signed up enough people to win back about half the members it lost.
Negotiations on legitimate contracts have started, under difficult circumstances. The companies - counting on their deal with IWA - signed agreements with the health authorities. They have tight financial constraints. The union is looking for significantly more than the IWA's contracts provided. It's a formula for conflict. Employees with Sodexho in the Lower Mainland and Victoria have given their union a 96-per-cent strike mandate.
Job action isn't the only risk. Companies facing unexpected wage costs may press the health authorities for more money, or simply walk away.
The transition to private service delivery, at much lower wages, was certain to be difficult, as wide concerns about cleanliness and food quality have shown.
By signing dubious contracts, the IWA local and the companies have made the process even riskier.
Footnote: The Steelworkers are holding hearings on the allegations, which could prove embarassing all around. Former IWA president - and federal Liberal candidate - Dave Haggard was warned of problems in the local 18 months ago, but nothing happened.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Ottawa dodges chance to reduce pine beetle disaster

VICTORIA - The pine beetle is taking the province inexorably towards a massive natural disaster.
The economic damage will dwarf anything Canada has experienced in the last decade, with consequences more severe than B.C.'s forest fires, or Quebec's ice storm.
But the government response, provincially and federally, has so far not matched the seriousness of the problem.
Federal Industry Minister David Emerson has just rejected the province's request for a $1-billion aid package over the next decade. Too expensive, he says. Ottawa wants to find cheaper ways of helping communities cope with the crisis.
Part of the problem is the way the disaster is unfolding in slow motion. The 1998 Quebec ice storm hit in a day, and Ottawa quickly came up with about $1 billion in today's dollars.
The beetle disaster's consequences are still up to 15 years away, and governments are not good at thinking that far ahead.
The beetles are killing the forests now.Ultimately scientists figure 80 per cent of the province's lodgepole pine - the dominant species across much of the Interior - will be dead.
The dead trees will retain their value for 10 to 15 years. The rush to harvest that timber before it goes to waste is creating a boom in communities across the Interior and North.
But at the end of that boom will be a brutal bust.
Once the trees are harvested, or lose their value, those communities face dramatic reductions in the amount of timber available for harvest. Even with aggressive reforestation, replacement trees will be decades away from maturity.
Across much of the province communities are facing 20 to 40-per-cent reductions in their annual allowable cuts by 2015.
What that means is a crushing loss of jobs and economic activity. In the Quesnel area the timber supply is expected to be cut by one-third. About three-quarters of the 12,000 area jobs are tied to the forest industry. That means about 2,600 jobs are at risk. The spin-off effects - on schools, housing prices, retailers- will be enormous. (The impact would be the same as 35,000 people losing their jobs in Greater Victoria.)
The current boom will make the crash even harder. Forest employment could fall by 50 per cent in Quesnel from its peak, Canadian Forest Service economist Bill White told a Prince George conference this week.
All of which makes Emerson's rejection of B.C.'s request for aid surprising.
The federal government has been providing $8 million a year since 2002, mainly for research. Earlier this year Ottawa came up with a one-time $100 million contribution for beetle response efforts.
But what's needed is stable, long-term funding to allow a sweeping response. The to do list is daunting. Reforestation is critical, as is a search for ways to get more value - and jobs - out of the timber remaining for harvest.
Communities will also need help looking beyond the forest industry for new job creation, and support in investing in the changes needed to attract those businesses. Displaced workers will need retraining. Work needs to start now on promoting mining, and ranching and tourism in the affected regions.
And everyone deserves information to let them make informed decisions about their futures.
That kind of response requires a long-term funding commitment.
The provincial government has been moving slowly on its own financial commitment, in part because it feared giving Ottawa an easy out.
The province has allocated $89 million for reforestation efforts over the next three years, and Premier Gordon Campbell promised $30 million in pine beetle support for Northern communities in the eve of the election campaign. There's an economic diversification co-ordinator, and an advisory committee that meets twice a year.
But given the size of the problem, concern is increasing that not enough is being now to deal with a crisis that is clearly on the horizon.
It's rare that you can see a disaster coming. Nothing will stop it, but we do at least have the chance to plan and prepare.
Footnote: The defeat of Skeena Liberal Roger Harris has been a setback in the beetle response efforts. Harris had responsibility for the issues as junior forest minister, and appeared to be moving the government towards a more complete response.