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  • Volume Eight, Number Eight: December 2003

    "Voluntary Agreements"

    Dark Shadows Cast


    Marco Procaccini

    Solidarity may be forever, but it’s not always consistent, if the recent BC Federation of Labour convention in Vancouver is any indication.

    The escalating confrontation between the IWA Canada and the rest of the labour movement over one of the union’s locals, 1-3567, signing highly concessionary contracts with the executives of four multinational corporations seeking to take advantage of the BC Liberal government’s sell-off efforts of public health facilities, cast a dark shadow over the convention’s resolve to lead a united opposition to the regime.

    Despite being ruled in violation of the constitution of the Canadian Labour Congress, which said last month the so-called “voluntary agreements” signed with no mandate from the local’s membership and prior to the firms’ hiring of any employees, the IWA’s national executive appeared to commit to supporting the local’s actions.

    A composite resolution designed to encourage both the IWA and its chief opponent, the Hospital Employees Union, whose members at many facilities have been fired as they have been closed or turned over to the corporations, to settle the matter amicably, was rejected by the IWA convention delegation.

    “The IWA is ready to look for a solution to this, but I don’t think the HEU is ready find any compromised solution,” said Wilf McIntyre, second national vice-president of the IWA, adding that the resolution implies that the union local would have to give up these contracts and allow workers hired under these provisions to join the HEU. “This resolution doesn’t do this. If necessary we will fight, and you’re in for a fight.”

    His comments prompted heckles and jeers from many of the over one thousand delegates and dozens of visitors and observers. A group of health care workers in the visitors’ gallery vowed to do whatever they could to challenge the IWA, including approaching the newly hired workers under these contracts to ask them to quit the IWA and join the HEU.

    “They’re raiding us and we’re supposed to let them get away with this,” said one HEU member, who chose not to give his name for fear of reprisal from his employer. He works as an orderly at the Vancouver Hospital and Health Sciences Center, formerly known as the Vancouver General Hospital. He claims he has witnessed Local 1-3567 members on site at the hospital trying to recruit HEU members at the facility to join the IWA, and that the hospital’s management seems to approve.

    “The Liberals lied to the public in the last election that they would protect public health care and us people who help provide it,” he said. “Now they’re going off firing everyone they can and selling our jobs off to the lowest bidder, and the IWA’s helping them do it all the way. It’s like we put our jobs on the line to fight for health care, and the IWA gets jobs for taking it apart.”

    Three of the contracts signed by Local 1-3567’s leadership are with Sudhexo, Aramark and Compass: multinational firms that specialize in taking over health care operations, mainly long-term care residences, that have been sold off by public health systems. Working and pay conditions in these privatized facilities are for the most part substantially lower than those in the public sector, and, according to health care advocacy groups, there have been many concerns raised about lower service quality and health standards.

    The new contracts call for wage rates for about $9.30 an hour with no benefits—less than half of what HEU members are paid. Even HEU collective agreements at existing private for-profit facilities, including recently sold-off facilities where workers have joined or re-joined the HEU, call for pay rates that are substantially higher than the Local 1-3567 contracts—and this, along with these contracts being signed without the traditional democratic process, has been especially galling for legions of union members.

    Meanwhile, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the national labour organization to which the HEU is affiliated, threatened at its recent convention to withhold its membership fees to the CLC unless it imposes immediate sanctions against the IWA, which itself is currently locked in a bitter strike against imposed contract provisions by forest company bosses on 6,000 of its members in wood harvesting and processing industry.

    In addition, the union is facing internal conflict over the situation. Although most of the IWA delegates left the BC Fed convention during the debate on the resolution, some stayed and expressed their opposition to Local 1-3567’s actions. The move also caused a stir at the IWA’s convention in Kelowna in October, as many of its delegates from across the country denounced the contracts as a betrayal of the union’s principles and legacy.

    Meetings are currently under way between IWA and HEU representatives to try to hammer out a solution. So far, no agreement has been reached.

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