Health employers’ labour relations solutions are no solutions at all

News release

by Chris Allnutt and George Heyman

Imagine the future of your health care as seen through the eyes of the Health Employers Association of B.C.

A future where taxpayer-subsidized health care corporations pad profits by cutting corners on wages and on the quality of care. Where care aides, licensed practical nurses, RNs and home support workers are stripped of their right to take any form of job action. A future where laws protecting workers from on-the- job injuries and workplace violence are weakened.

That’s the future contemplated by the HEABC in a brief to our new provincial government obsequiously titled Health Labour Relations Solutions for a New Era. Far from being the blueprint for improved health care implied in the title, HEABC’s recommendations harken back to a bygone era of fragmented labour relations where care standards were uneven and health care workers’ rights to bargain better working and caring conditions restricted.

HEABC’s proposals to spawn additional rounds of health care collective bargaining are enough to keep any one of our new health ministers awake at night.

Yes, while the public awaited action by health employers to resolve contract disputes with two groups of health care workers, HEABC was busy penning proposals to add another five sets of bargaining to the mix.

First they would reverse a recent government move that recognized that the seamless delivery of care from the hospital to the community would be strengthened by administratively merging 60,000 community- based and hospital-based services and support workers into one bargaining unit.

HEABC then proposes to hive off from each of these two groups — and from bargaining units representing paramedical professionals and registered nurses —— four additional bargaining units representing profit- seeking but publicly subsidized long-term care facilities and home care agencies.

Right now, these private health care companies must provide —— as a condition of receiving the majority of their funding from taxpayers —— the same standards of care, wages and working conditions provided by non-profit and public health care employers.

Under HEABC’s plan, these corporations would have a free hand to fatten profit margins by driving down wages, increasing workloads and cutting corners on care.

One only needs to observe the crushing crisis of confidence facing the private U.S. nursing home industry to appreciate what a disastrous move that would be for seniors and people with disabilities.

HEABC’s wish list for government also includes a lengthy list of measures that would undermine the ability of health care workers and their unions to work for progressive health care reforms at the bargaining table —— measures like the $15 million in additional funding for long-term care staffing negotiated earlier this year.

HEABC proposes that direct care providers no longer have the right to take any form of job action. Other health care workers would have to provide a week’s notice of any job action. And government would have the power to impose arbitrated settlements on health care workers.

And they’re looking out for their own pay packs and perks.

HEABC wants a review of management compensation so that they can “attract, motivate and retain highly skilled professionals and executives.” But while big pay increases for managers are on their minds, health employers aren’t so sure that women and nursing staff deserve similar consideration. They’d repeal pay equity legislation and transfer thousands of LPNs between bargaining units in an effort to “rationalize” their wages.

Fragmented care, uneven standards, additional contract talks, attacks on workers’ rights —— it all adds up to more health care chaos when stability is what’s really needed to move forward.

We need to make progress on primary health care reform and seniors’ care in order to relieve the pressure on our hospital emergency rooms. Shortages of health care professionals require urgent action to utilize every member of the health care team to full extent of their skills and training. And we need to more effectively deliver health services across the entire continuum of care —— from hospitals to the home.

Modernizing medicare is a top priority for British Columbians. That priority is shared by front-line health care workers and their unions who’ve used the collective bargaining process to secure better care for their patients, clients and residents.

It’s also an election commitment made by our provincial government whose “New Era” document includes a number of proposals to improve health care including a promise to consult with the front-line workers who deliver those services. It may be that the biggest obstacle on the road to better health care is the dated labour relations attitudes of those who are charged with its management.

Chris Allnutt is secretary-business manager of the Hospital Employees’ Union. George Heyman is president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union. HEU and BCGEU represent 60,000 health care workers across B.C.