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May 2004 • Vol 4, No. 5 •

Hospital Employees Union Draws Province-Wide Solidarity

By Roger Annis and Derrick O’Keefe

The British Columbia (BC) Liberals’ war against the labor movement in BC has come to a head as tens of thousands of workers from across the province have joined the fight of the Hospital Employees Union (HEU) against draconian back-to-work legislation. Bill 37 orders an end to the week-old strike of the HEU, cuts their wages by 15 percent and offers no guarantees against layoffs through privatization of services.

Workers throughout the province regard this bill as an attack on their own rights. They also see an opportunity to push back a government whose cutback programs have caused great hardship to working people.

“It’s important that we support the health care workers,” said Doc Ballard, a Vancouver municipal government employee, while walking the picket line at Vancouver General Hospital. “If we don’t, then we may be next.”

“We need a strike of all the unions,” said HEU member Paul Wells while on the same picket line. “If all the unions stand together against this government, we’ll be able to get rid of them eventually.”

Saturday, May 1, saw the largest May Day demonstration in Vancouver in recent memory, as thousands of workers took to the streets in a show of support for the struggle. Major contingents from the HEU and the nurses union were present, but there was also a strong presence of private sector workers and community organizations. Marches occurred in other towns and cities across British Columbia.

B.C. Federation of Labor president Jim Sinclair spoke to the marchers and announced escalating job actions in the coming week if the government of Premier Gordon Campbell remains intransigent on Bill 37. “The labor movement has its divisions, but we’re united this time,” he said. “We are going to fight and we won’t back down.”

Chris Allnutt, secretary-business manager for the HEU, told the May Day rally “it is our right and responsibility to fight unjust laws,” reflecting the militant, defiant mood of the crowd.

Solidarity actions spread across BC

Union solidarity with the HEU expanded rapidly. On Friday, April 30, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees walked off the job across the province, shutting down municipal governments, including Vancouver, and closing down the school system in Victoria. Paper mills in Prince George and Quesnel were shut down the same day. Construction workers stayed out for a second day at three BC Hydro generating stations.

On Saturday, Steelworker union members closed the Cominco lead-zinc smelter in Trail, and paper workers in Campbell River walked off the job. Bus drivers, members of the Canadian Auto Workers, had threatened to shut down the transit system in Vancouver and Victoria. Teachers were planning on joining HEU picket lines that day, shutting the schools in the province. At the Vancouver rally, Sinclair announced “a significant portion of the forest industry will be shut down” on Monday (May 3).

HEU workers went on strike on April 25, affecting 330 health care institutions across the province. The major hospitals have been ringed every day by hundreds of loud, boisterous picket lines. Workers from other unions joined the picketing in massive numbers, including the BC Nurses Union (BCNU, 35,000 members) and the Health Sciences Association (HSA, 15,000 members). Health care was reduced to “essential service” levels.

Laws are a green light for privatization

The fight took a sharp turn on Thursday, April 29 when the provincial government passed Bill 37. It imposes a three-year collective agreement containing the employers’ demands for a 15 percent cut in wages and benefits, extension of the workweek by one and a half hours, and no limit to job cuts through privatization. Over the past year, six thousand jobs have been lost to privatization in areas such as cleaning and food preparation. Thousands more are planned.

“This legislation is unprecedented in the modern history of labor relations,” said Vancouver and District Labor Council president Bill Saunders. “To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time in Canada that a government has actually legislated a reduction in the standard of living of a group of workers,” Saunders explained.

The wages of hospital service workers range from $17 to $18 per hour (Canadian). The privatized jobs pay little more than half that, $9.50 to $11, and they have minimal or no medical, vacation and other benefits. Under the provisions of Bill 29, a bill that voided existing collective agreements in the hospitals in 2002, companies bidding on contracts are not required to hire the workers whose jobs are lost nor recognize successor rights for the HEU.

Karen Cameron, a laid-off cleaner at Vancouver General Hospital, told us, “I’m a single parent. I was laid off in October and my employment insurance runs out soon. I received no severance pay, and I had no option of keeping my old job. How am I supposed to raise my child? I’ve been screwed, and I’m angry. I’m here on this picket line for the women who have kids to raise and rent to pay.”

A recent report by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) entitled, “A Return to Wage Discrimination,” details the effects of privatization on the livelihoods of hospital workers. The report shows that privatized hospital support workers in BC are now the lowest paid in Canada. Most hospital support workers are female, and the CCPA report draws particular attention to gains in pay equity for women hospital workers that have been achieved by the unions in British Columbia and are now being reversed.

The report also notes the decline in health care standards that accompany the privatization drive. Workers on the picket line give many examples of this, and this is echoed by constant reports in the media. In Britain, the health authority has been obliged to reverse some of its privatization of in-hospital services because of the decline in standards.

Deep resentment of the Campbell government

The Liberals were elected in 2001 on a platform that promised no radical changes to the rights of workers. But from the beginning, they carried out the most sweeping cuts to social services and workers rights of any government in Canadian history. Thousands of jobs have been lost to privatizations. Scores of hospitals and schools have been closed. Welfare and other social programs have been sharply reduced. Throughout the province, there is an anger and resentment against the government that runs very deep.

The current strike is not the first challenge to the Campbell government. Last year, HEU members turned down a proposal, by 57 percent, that would have reduced salaries, vacations and other benefits in exchange for a cap on jobs lost to contracting out. In 2001, in the last round of contract bargaining in health care, nurses organized job actions including a ban on overtime. That same year, members of the Health Sciences Association waged two days of illegal, rotating strikes. Teachers undertook job actions in 2001 to press for a new collective agreement and improvements to education services. The government met each of these challenges with special laws that stripped these workers of the right to strike and to protest their conditions of work.

Late last year, ferry workers shut down the coastal ferry service for two days, and for the first time the government was forced to back down in the face of a union challenge. It declined to pursue fines and firings of union leaders when the union defied a return to work order from the Labor Relations Board.

If the government has succeeded with its cutbacks, it is due in part to inadequate solidarity among union officials. The CCPA report highlights one of the most grievous examples of this as it affects the HEU. The corporations bidding on service contracts in the hospitals approached unions other than the HEU with offers to represent the new workforce. Those offers were accepted by the Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers Union of Canada (IWA). It is the largest industrial union in British Columbia. Before the new workers were even hired, the IWA “negotiated” agreements with wages of $10.25, a 44 percent reduction from the wages earned by HEU members.

Today, the collective agreements of all three health care unions are expired and they are bargaining, but coordination of bargaining and job action is not complete. Nurses, HSA members, and members of the BC Government Employees Union began to cross HEU picket lines after Bill 37 was adopted.

Many workers look to the next provincial election, due one year from now, for an opportunity to elect the New Democratic Party to government and put an end to the Liberal cuts. However, in this battle between the labor movement and Campbell’s regime in Victoria, the stakes are high today. A victory for the unions and their community allies would greatly boost the morale and confidence of workers as they fight to reverse the jobs and services that have been lost to cutbacks. And, over the last week, tens of thousands have been taking to the streets, voting with their feet in defense of the HEU, workers rights and public health care.

As we go to press: As of Sunday evening, May 2, a tentative settlement of the HEU strike has reportedly been reached. News outlets are reporting that transit and schools will be open Monday morning, and that picket lines are expected to come down shortly. The agreement reportedly scraps the punitive retroactive pay cuts included in Bill 37, and caps the number of jobs that can be contracted out.

Earlier Sunday, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Labor Relations Board decision that the HEU was in contempt of court for defying the Liberals’ back-to-work legislation, threatening heavy fines against the union.

Darrick O'Keefe is co-editor of Seven Oaks (www.sevenoaksmag.com); Roger Annis is co-editor of Socialist Voice (socialistvoice@sympatico.ca).

Socialist Voice, May 3, 2004





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