Health care workers in British Columbia are continuing to defy Bill 37, the back-to-work legislation that was passed in the legislature before dawn on April 28. The Bill slashes the pay of hospital workers by legislative fiat, cuts benefits and increases hours of work. It also paves the way for more privatization and contracting out which will lead to more wage cuts — as much as 40-50 per cent — and fewer benefits in the future. Workers remained out on in what their union leaders called a “protest,” while the Health Employers Association went to the Labour Relations Board in an attempt to force HEU members back to work.
The governing BC Liberals treated its dispute with the hospital workers and the Hospital Employees Union (HEU) as an exercise in political manipulation. Negotiating a collective agreement requires hard work and compromise. The BC Liberals have no interest in either. Instead, they rely on bullying tactics to get their way over the poorest paid workers in the health care system.
How did the government mislead the electorate in this dispute?
First, they portrayed themselves as a third party broker between the Health Employers Association and the HEU. In fact, they were directing one side of the negotiation. Health Authorities report directly to the Deputy Minister of Health Services. Their boards are made up of political appointees, many of them campaign contributors to the BC Liberals.
At one point this week, Health Services Minister Colin Hansen said of the HEU workers: “They don’t seem to care that patients are suffering in this province.” He could have ended the dispute at any time by instructing the employers’ association to freeze contracting out and privatization while negotiations took place. He had the power. He didn’t care.
Instead, the government allowed the health system to deteriorate and patients to suffer to justify imposing management’s contract demands. The Premier, the author of management’s demands, then announces that he is bringing in legislation on the BCTV news. Some hero! Some honest broker!
Second, the Premier broke his word to health care workers. In 2001, the government ripped up existing HEU contracts to allow contracting out, in spite of specific promise from the Premier months before, not to do so.
Third, the BC Liberals claimed to be guardians of the public purse in this dispute.
Yet, the government overturned restraints on wage increases for health care executives. Some health care CEOs have received salary increases of more than 100 per cent. And, in 2001, the B.C. government secretly increased the remuneration of Ministers, increasing their tax-fee allowance by an average of more than $10,000 a year for each member of the largest cabinet in B.C. history.
This is not the government protecting the treasury against a powerful union. This is the government financing wage and benefits increases for the privileged on the backs of hospital workers.
Fourth, the BC Liberals misled with statistics. Take for example, an important statistic in the government propaganda campaign against the HEU. The government establishes the average wage of health care workers in Canada by taking the sum of average provincial salaries. This gives PEI equal weight to Ontario, even though Ontario has 30 times as many health care workers. Such misuse of statistics allows the government to understate the average wage of health care workers in the rest of Canada.
Fifth, privatization and contracting out may prove to be a net loser for the system and the economy. When health authorities cut the salary of cleaning staff to $10/hour or less through contracting out, most of the resulting savings revert to employment agencies and outsourcers in profits. Most of these companies are headquartered outside B.C. The new system faces increased administrative cost, staff turnover, decline in service quality and an outflow of funds from the B.C. economy.
Contracting out of cleaning services will likely turn into a health care sponsorship scandal directing money previously paid to workers over to companies who are BC Liberal contributors.
Finally, there is the human cost of these policies and the contempt shown for workers doing difficult jobs for little pay.
Take Joanne, one of the 6,000 HEU workers who lost her job this year due to contracting out. She now works full-time as a cleaner in a non-unionized care facility, cleans banks at night and offers cleaning services to private homes in her spare time. She estimates she works 66 hours a week, not counting traveling time between jobs — 50 weeks a year — to earn enough to hope to put her daughters through university. Her gross salary for working the equivalent of two full-time jobs is less than $40,000.
The B.C. Liberal government has made it clear in its attitude toward hospital employees: if you work with your hands, if you struggle to support your family, if you were unable to obtain the privilege of a university degree, if you do the work Gordon Campbell or Colin Hansen would never do at wages they would never accept, you simply don’t count.
Hospital employees do necessary and difficult jobs in our health care system, ensuring public health and helping provide care for the sick. Their work is important, must be performed efficiently and should not be devalued simply because hospital workers are paid less in PEI. Is doing a hard, backbreaking job for $33,000 ripping off the public?
The Hospital Employees Union has occasionally been described as “militant” by the government and the media. But whether you support the union movement or not, what other choice do workers and their union have in the face of contempt and bullying? The union’s fight to protect public medicare and oppose the deterioration of service is, in the end, a fight for all of us.