Strategic Thoughts

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October 7, 2002

Can HEU Show Leadership?

The Campbell government has made it perfectly clear that it is going to pay less for much of the work now done by members of the Hospital Employees Union. When Bill 29, the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act, was introduced, government issued a background paper that contained numerous attacks on the union including its often repeated claim that labour costs are 30% higher than elsewhere in Canada.

The members of HEU who provide housekeeping, grounds and other building services need the protection of a union that can keep their standard of living higher than that of the working poor. Despite all of the attacks by the Campbell government, it is not easy to raise a family on $36,000 per year - too many people know that from first hand experience. It is sickening that government is willing to break contracts in order to drive those wages down to $20,000 or $25,000 per year. Nevertheless, that is precisely what is happening, so the question becomes what should HEU do?

One approach is to seek constant media attention in an effort to win public support. HEU has embarrassed the government with several leaked documents that should have been public information. It is arguable, however, whether any of their efforts have changed many minds on the fundamental issue of protecting the incomes and benefits of HEU members.

The union also has the option of attempting to overturn government's decisions in the courts. If government loses a court challenge, it can retroactively amend any "flawed" legislation without as much as a pause in its course of change.

Unions have flourished in British Columbia with all types of governments. Under the Harcourt government Shaughnessy Hospital was closed. In the aftermath of that closure, government sought to renegotiate collective agreements so as to make it easier to facilitate changing the structure of health care. Collective agreements were opened and renegotiated resulting in the creation of the Labour Force Adjustment Agency. Gordon Campbell vigorously criticized the new agreements, but as Premier he appointed the person who helped the NDP restructure collective bargaining in health care to work for his government to restructure collective bargaining for social services. Perhaps it is possible to open agreements and make accommodations rather than going to the most extreme forms of union busting.

In the 1980s the retail food industry in BC came under enormous competitive pressures with the introduction of large new stores. The Retail Clerks agreed to concessions that no one wanted but were necessary in order for workers in the industry to survive without being driven down even further. The same situation faces many workers in health care today. It is hard for union leaders to tell their membership that concessions are necessary in order to preserve their jobs, but when the alternative is to fight to the last drop of the members' blood, leadership may call for recognizing the need to accommodate change.

It is possible that the Campbell government is more interested in smashing the Hospital Employees Union than it is in making orderly change within health care. The union has the ability to put that to the test by offering, as it did with the Harcourt government, to open agreements and negotiate changes that would be better for health workers (and patients) than the low wage, nonunion alternative that appears to be only months away.


May 6, 2002

Dirty Tricks on Eve of Labour Code Changes

Less for your, more for deputy mininsters.Many people, whether they are pro or anti-union, may not comprehend all of the tactics being used by friends of the Campbell government to break the Hospital Employees Union. Why, for instance, are agents of potential new laundry and hospital housekeeping companies interested in signing deals with legitimate unions?

The answer has to do with freedom of association and the inability of the Campbell government to simply outlaw unions. If potential new employers could cut a sweetheart deal with a union that is a member of the CLC, then other CLC member unions would be prohibited from organizing and replacing the certified union. If such a union could be found, the employer could put a few friends or relatives on the payroll; they would sign union cards; the union would be certified and sign a sweetheart deal to keep wages low. The union would collect dues, but the thousands of new employees that are hired would have no real advocate. Fortunately, legitimate unions are more principled and are not going to sell out to the Campbell government and its friends. Unfortunately, when the dirty tricks fail, the Campbell government can make changes to the Labour Code to help break unions as it did with Bill 29. Those amendments are expected any day now.

Throughout his cutback campaign Premier Campbell has gone out of his way to paint all controversy as a fight between his government and big unions. When Bill 29 was introduced to break existing contracts with health unions, government and its employer associations released information attacking the wage and benefit levels of HEU members. It is now clear former Opposition Leader Gordon Campbell lied when he was interviewed by the HEU newspaper before the election, and as Premier, Campbell's agenda includes breaking the union.

The Campbell government, with its clumsy union busting tactics, is finding it may be harder than it thought to break the HEU. Thanks to the integrity of the BCGEU, taped conversations were obtained and released to the news media showing efforts to block HEU members from reapplying for their jobs and revealing the scheme to keep the HEU from reorganizing the new employees.

There are people who think that $10 an hour with little or no benefits is an acceptable wage. There are BC Liberals on record in Hansard talking about the building trades in such terms. Kamloops MLA Kevin Kruger had to apologize for revealing his condescending attitude towards hospital cleaners.

Campbell's cabinet ministers, who make over $103,000 per year plus benefits, show little compassion for working people when they sit back and allow the salary of laundry workers to be reduced from about $32,000 to under $18,000 per year. This same attack on living wages applies to dozens of other health workers (for example, lab technicians, physiotherapists and security guards).

Like much of what the Campbell government does, this is all about reducing living standards at the bottom while looking after those in the six figure income set. It is a transfer of income from the bottom to the top. Workers deserve to earn a wage that keeps them above the poverty line. Without the support of effective unions that will not happen.


January 27, 2002

Killing HEU
Creating tens of thousands of working poor

Campbell puts workers into povertyChristmas came a month late for union bashers, but when it came there were many boxes under the tree. The Campbell government is putting out a spin that the three pieces of legislation it introduced on January 25th remove sweetheart contract provisions that the NDP snuck in on the eve of their devastation. A review of the legislation shows that tens of thousands of workers represented by many unions have lost fundamental protections some of which have roots going back well before 1991.

The most radical of all the Campbell changes will effectively destroy the Hospital Employees Union. Some union bashers may cheer, but stop to think. The HEU exists to represent some of the lowest paid workers in the health care system. Do we help health care by forcing wages to such a low level that the workers are living in poverty? Poor people are sick more often, have more accidents and die sooner. People earning $13 an hour, $26,000 per year, are poor.

Unions exist for the purpose of balancing economic powers. People with the qualifications to be Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs may be so rare that they can negotiate salaries of up to $203,500 per year plus rich pension, severance and other benefits. (OIC 561)  People who clean, cook, do laundry, and provide security do not have the same bargaining power.

Left without the protection and bargaining power of unions their wages are driven to a level that no one would envy. Witness the recent concerns over airport security. One of the first problems that was identified was that security screeners hired by contractors were paid close to minimum wage. The resulting high turnover and lack of incentive was found to contribute to weaknesses in security. It is not just the worker who benefits from being lifted out of poverty. It is also everyone who depends on the service provided by those workers.

The Campbell government has charged that support services workers in BC's health system earn wages 30% higher than the rest of Canada. The Health Employers Association of BC claims that laundry workers in the rest of Canada average $12.26 per hour compared to $17.56 in BC. HEABC says cleaners in the rest of Canada average $12.93 per hour compared to $17.58 in BC, and cooks average $14.74 in the rest of Canada compared to $19.92 in BC.

The Campbell government's "solution" is the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act and Regulations. That misnamed legislative attack changes contracts to shorten severance notice and payout, to restrict bumping provisions and to encourage contracting out. The legislation prohibits any collective agreement from containing terms restricting contracting out - replacing union health employees with non-union contractors.

The new Health Authorities will now layoff all workers in dietary departments, housekeeping, security and laundry. The services will then be provided by contractors who will pay as little as possible (perhaps even $6 per hour).

Some people may cheer and say that will make more money available for health care, or they may simply hate unions. Such folks ought not to get sick because their basic services in hospital will soon depend on an unreliable workforce that wants nothing more than to move on to a better job. They also might not want to have to pay the social costs of having tens of thousands of workers reduced to living and working in poverty. There are over 50,000 people working in health and social services who will be affected by Premier Campbell's "solution".

According to the "Service Plan" (page 4) released on Black Thursday, January 17th, for the Ministry of Health Services "Changes will involve significant staff reductions across all regions as a result of the changes in how services will be provided to create a sustainable health system." We now know how significant and how the changes will be made. Government will give the health authorities no choice as their budgets are inadequate to meet their obligations.

Cutting $5 per hour from 50,000 people is a powerful financial incentive for health employers. There will also be powerful negative consequences.


January 26, 2002

Breaking Contracts
What's wrong with paying a living wage?

Legislation Introduced January 25, 2002:

The Ministry of Labour website contains two background documents that contain anecdotal information that attempts to justify breaking various contract provisions. We will have to wait for the unions that are involved to tell their side of the story before we can judge whether or not the stories are exaggerated and if they are isolated examples or representative cases.

Several substantial changes stand out including a very dirty trick related to the earlier delisting of $129.4 million per year in auxiliary health services.

Labour Minister Graham Bruce tabled draft regulations for Bill 28. Section 6 of that Bill combined with the draft regulations means that hospitals can contract out to private (non-union) physiotherapists. By deinsuring private physiotherapists a few weeks earlier, the government has removed much of their business (deprived clients of services) and has thereby created a cheap source of non-union labour.

A big change for teachers and students is shown by class sizes for K-12 that are changed according to the following table.

Class-size limits

Grade
Level

Kindergarten
Grades 1 to 3
Grades 4 to 12

Current
Limits

20
22
Vary by contract

New district
average limits

19
21
30

New limits for each
individual class

22
24
--

Switching to district wide averages means one grade 12 science class could have 20 students while another has 40. The average would be 30 which would satisfy the new requirement although the students would receive significantly different educations. It would be virtually impossible to safely run science labs in the class with 40 thereby requiring more demonstrations for the entire class and less hands on experience for the students. District wide averaging will seriously impair individualized instruction for the higher grades.

Changes to the health and social service contracts reflect a value that $16.83 per hour is plenty for people who work with disabled clients. People making $33,000 a year would have received about $460 a year in tax reductions from the Campbell government. Now they will lose a 28 per cent negotiated pay adjustment that was to be applied over the next three years - a loss of $9,240 a year.

Changes to contracting out provisions will give health and social service employers the opportunity to drive wages down further and keep them down as the employer changes contractors (with no succession rights) if the unorganized do sign union cards.

It is all about values. In his first weeks in office Premier Campbell justified a 35% pay increase for deputy ministers, including the former liberal party president, by saying BC has to pay enough to attract the best and brightest. In the New Era it appears that the government concept of the best and brightest applies to the six figure set. Those making less than $100,000 per year are receiving third class treatment as their contracts are broken.

 

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