The legal fight for dignity, justice gets underway

The bid by B.C. health care unions to have the Campbell government’s contract breaking legislation, Bill 29 declared unconstitutional, got underway yesterday morning April 14 before a packed B.C. Supreme Court room in Vancouver.

Appearing before Madame Justice Nicole Garson, union lawyer Joseph Arvay outlined the key arguments and main sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the case being advanced on behalf of close to 100,000 front-line health care workers.

Arvay said the suit is about workers’ constitutional right to be treated with dignity, equality and justice in the workplace. The fact that 90 per cent of the workers targeted by Bill 29 are female makes the case all the more important, Arvay said, because the legislation clearly targets women.

He told the court how these workers perform women’s work: feeding, cleaning, nurturing, supporting and caring for the sick and dying in our society. One would think, Arvay said, that very few jobs could be more important, and that the workers who perform these vital tasks would be treated with dignity and respect.

But “sadly, that’s not the case,” he said. “If Bill 29 is allowed to stand it will turn back the clock on women workers.”

Meanwhile, government lawyer Peter Gall opened by arguing that bill 29 addressed simple operational matters only, which the government had decided should be put outside the collective bargaining process for employers to solely determine. He said the government was within its legal rights to do so.

Using the private sector as a comparison, Gall said that in the public sector there’s no “marketplace” to “enforce discipline” and create choice. That’s why the Campbell government changed both collective bargaining rules and the content of existing contracts.

“What’s at issue is a disagreement over policy” not a constitutional issue, Gall said.

Legal arguments continue April 15, with Madame Justice Garson expected to rule on how confidential cabinet documents that touch on Bill 29 will be dealt with in the public court process.

The legal suit is being coordinated by the three main health care unions — HEU, BCNU and BCGEU on behalf of bargaining associations representing health and support workers in facilities and in the community along with Registered Nurses.