Health authority breached labour code in contracting out deal, LRB rules

Board finds PHSA-Compass contract is revocable, discussion of alternatives ordered

A senior Labour Relations Board official ruled Dec. 5 that the Provincial Health Services Authority violated the B.C. Labour code because it refused to meet in good faith with HEU to consider union proposals for alternatives that could have prevented the privatization of hundreds of support service jobs.

LRB vice-chair V.A. Pylypchuk found in favour of HEU, and ordered the PHSA to provide all information requested by the union and to meet to discuss alternatives to contracting out. In addition, he ordered health employers to cease and desist from any further violations of the Code.

It’s an important decision, says HEU secretary-business manager Chris Allnutt, because it clearly spells out the responsibilities of health employers to consult in a meaningful way when considering significant changes.

And, says Allnutt, the ruling rejects employer claims that once a decision has been made to contract out, it’s irrevocable and the boss is under no obligation to consider alternatives.

Front and centre in the hearing was whether the Provincial Health Services Authority had fulfilled its legal obligations to consult under Section 54 of the Code when it moved to contract out to Compass food service and housekeeping jobs at Children’s and Women’s Health Centre, and the B.C. Cancer Agency. Provisions of Section 54 kick in when an employer is considering changes that impact on the jobs of a significant number of employees.

In the Oct. 31 hearing, HEU legal counsel argued the union had sought meetings to discuss alternatives to privatization with the PHSA as soon as the health authority had first outlined its plans in the spring of 2002. But the employers refused to meet for almost a year, claiming no decisions had been made.

That was proof of the union’s contention that PHSA never provided an opportunity to discuss alternatives that could have kept workers employed.

And the union pressed the point that when an employer says it needs to make significant changes for economic reasons, it is obligated to disclose those reasons and consult with the union to find alternative solutions.

The Health Employers Association of B.C. argued the PHSA was in compliance with its Section 54 obligations and gave appropriate notice. And despite the fact it had not provided the union with any documentation, the employer body says that HEU had enough knowledge of budget numbers and savings targets to put together a proposed alternative.

Besides, argued HEABC, by law health employers are not required to consult their workers because those obligations were eliminated by the Campbell government’s contract breaking legislation Bill 29. And as far as employers were concerned, the decision to contract out was irrevocable.

But, importantly, Pylypchuck rejected the “irrevocable” claim. Even though the PHSA has signed deals with Compass for housekeeping and food service, he agreed with HEU that the Compass contracts contain no-cause termination provisions, which still leaves the door open to consider and implement alternatives.