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Columbia Journal logoVolume Nine, Number Three    May 2004    www.columbiajournal.ca

    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.

    Health Pact 1With 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 government."

    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.

    Health Pact 2That 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.

    Health Pact 3Prominent labour 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 Burnaby.

    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.

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