The wall tumbles down!

NDP passes changes to end division of community and facilities workers, but Liberals give thumbs down to justice

Premier Ujjal Dosanjh made good on his commitment to tear down the labour relations wall that segregates community caregivers from their counterparts in hospitals and long-term care facilities as the NDP used its majority to pass the required legislation on April 10, against the opposition of Gordon Campbell and the B.C. Liberals.

“This is a proud moment for HEU members across the province,” says secretary-business manager Chris Allnutt. “For the last six years, our union has fought hard to eliminate all the barriers imposed to maintain the community as a low wage ghetto and second class treatment for caregivers in this important sector.

“Combined with the breakthrough on parity in the recent community tentative agreement,” says Allnutt, “the legislation adopted by the NDP means that we’ve cleared the way for full justice, dignity and respect for community caregivers.

“Let’s also be clear that support and solidarity from the BCGEU and UFCW over the last 18 months was also a critical factor in this momentous event happening,” he says. “The legislation is good public policy that sets a new framework for more effective delivery of health care services for British Columbians,” Allnutt adds, extending his thanks to health minister Corky Evans and former health ministers Mike Farnworth and Penny Priddy who were both strong supporters of the change.

However, Allnutt says he was particularly disappointed with the response of the B.C. Liberals to the NDP’s legislative initiative. When the bill to tear down the wall — Bill 23 — was introduced last week, Liberal health critic Colin Hansen was quick to shoot it down. He claimed the move was strictly a political “payoff” to HEU which would waste tens of millions of dollars in taxpayers money that should be going to other parts of the health care system.

But after meeting with a delegation of front-line community caregivers from HEU and BCGEU in Victoria on April 9, and after having had a chance to actually read the legislation, Hansen scaled down his criticism, admitting his “payoff” remarks were intemperate. In debate in the Legislature the following day, Hansen acknowledged Bill 23 was a “measured approach” to change. Yet despite his new tune, and his “respect” for community caregivers, Hansen, Gordon Campbell and all 31 other Liberal MLAs present for the debate voted against it.

“The Liberal’s steadfast refusal to support this important public policy change sends a clear message to health care workers on the eve of an election,” says HEU’s Allnutt. “In the recent HEU Guardian interview, Gordon Campbell talked about how a Liberal government would treat health care workers with respect and dignity, how a Liberal government would listen to us.

“But it’s clear from their position on Bill 23 that while Campbell can talk the talk, the B.C. Liberals are unwilling to walk the walk.”

For Allnutt, the most symbolic moment in the debate on Bill 23 came from Liberal house leader Gary Farrell-Collins. Jauntily posed on the floor of the legislature, Farrell-Collins had one hand on his hip, the other extended outward giving a thumbs down to ensure that every Liberal MLA returning for the vote on the legislation would toe the party line. “In my mind, Farrell-Collins was giving the thumbs down to both justice for community health care workers and better health services for British Columbians,” Allnutt says.

Bill 23 comes into effect July 1 of this year and immediately combines 60,000 facilities and community health workers into one health and support bargaining unit. Once the tentative agreements in each sector are ratified, the bill keeps these in place until 2004, but sets out a timeline for unions and employers to construct one master agreement for health and support workers. This will include subsector component agreements that will codify conditions unique to each.