Health pact ends mass actions
By Dan Keeton
The pact announced on the evening of May 2 between the Hospital
Employees Union and the provincial government slammed the brakes on a
massive growing, and often seemingly spontaneous, protest against the
Gordon Campbell Liberal policies.
With the dust clearing from
what promised to be one of the greatest dust-ups this province has seen
in almost 20 years, the questions arise: What happened? What was
supposed to happen? And can it happen again?
No one is really defending the deal that ended the escalating strikes
and displays of public support, and that includes the HEU. "There's
nothing here to be happy about," acknowledged union communications
director Mike Old, in an interview on Co-op Radio's Union Made program.
"Workers have basically had their rights taken away by this
Hospital workers began walking off the job April 25 after the mediator
booked out of negotiations with the Health Employers Association
(HEABC), which had refused to accede to the union's request to hold off
on contracting out health services during negotiations. The union had
already lost some 6,000 members due to the privatization of services
such as housekeeping and laundry, handed over to foreign multinational
corporations. Employees of the private firms earn between $9-$10 an
hour – almost half of what HEU members are paid for the same work.
There is enough indication that this had become a major issue with the
public. An opinion poll commissioned by the HEU in April showed 69 per
cent of British Columbians believed contract rollbacks would worsen the
quality of health care. That would explain the deafening blare of car
horns from passing vehicles in support of picketers camped in front of
hospitals and other facilities around the province. Subsequent polls by
major media outlets showed strong public support for the health workers.
That factor differentiates the fightback from that which rocked the
province in 1983, when the Social Credit government of Bill Bennett
produced 26 bills of legislation cutting services and human rights.
While tens of thousands marched under the banners of Operation
Solidarity and the Solidarity Coalition uniting public sector unions
and the community, public support was not as solid. Neither was there
an adequate response from private sector unions, most of which members
stayed on the job as teachers and government workes began strike action.
That was the other key
difference between 1983 and the present. Spontaneous walkouts at
private sector sites around the province started early in the HEU
strike. By Saturday, word circulated throughout a march of 5,000-6,000
May Day marchers in Vancouver of the Steelworkers' walkout that stopped
actions at Cominco in Trail. In major job action planned for the coming
week, Longshoremen were prepared to shut down the Port of Vancouver.
Workers at Telus, in tough negotiations with their major
telecommunications employer, were set to mount picket lines. The
massive Canadian Union of Public Employees was to launch its long
anticipated Day of Action on Monday, May 3, shutting down public
facilities everywhere. It had all the makings of the General Strike
much sought by labour and community activists since the Campbell
Liberals election in mid-200l.
Meanwhile, the government had passed Bill 37, back-to-work legislation
that contained such punitive measures as a 15 per cent across-the-board
pay cut, retroactive to April 1. Privatization would continue.
The bill increased the work week by about two hours and attacked
existing seniority and overtime provisions. HEABC was in BC Supreme
Court on Sunday, seeking penalties against the strikers and the
government was certainly preparing its own punishments. But with public
opinion running strongly against it, the government only held some of
the cards. Emerging from a meeting with Labour Minister Graham Bruce on
Sunday evening, the union announced a "memorandum of agreement."
The BC Federation of Labour, a party to the talks, called the
memorandum a "major victory."
The memorandum, details of which will be hashed out with the aid of
mediator Vince Ready over the coming months, did put a cap on
privatization, limiting further contracting out during the life of the
imposed agreement to 600 jobs. It squelched the retroactive part of the
wage rollback, which was made effective May 1. It established a
$25-million severance fund for laid off workers and promised no
recrimination for the past week's job actions. The pact had no effect
on the HEABC's sought after penalties, however. That case proceeds.
commentators quoted in the major media did say that the province-wide
actions made the government blink, and that counts for something. But
the disappointment on the part of many who were set for at least
another week of actions was palpable. Commentaries emerged
denouncing the "sellout" and targetting key labour leaders as fat-cat
bureaucrats, a predictable and simplistic position. But there's no
doubt the move disappointed many HEU members, who maintained some
sporadic pickets Monday, including one around the HEU headquarters in
One of the casualties of this settlement, aside from enshrining a
continued assault on public health care, is the possible loss of the
momentum generated by this exceptional fightback. In part the result of
planning, with a healthy dose of spontaneity, the week of actions
constituted a heady response from a province weary and angry at the
government's relentless drive to cut back and privatize – activities
now tinged with intimations of criminality. There is no clear answer as
to where the fightback would have gone, and under what direction.
"If there is to be criticism, perhaps it might be that there was not a
clear plan as to how things were being projected out," commented David
Fairey, head of the Trade Union Research Bureau, on Union Made. "Was
the primary purpose of all the pressure to mitigate the legislation
somewhat to get a contract, or was it a more general protest against
the labour policies of this government?"
The deal struck May 2 might make the government think twice about
actions that rouse the sleeping lion. But it could also make mass
protest much harder to mount in the future.