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Local health workers back general strike call

Todd Lawson and John French Chief Staff Writers Picket lines at Squamish General Hospital (SGH) and Hilltop House were replaced on Thursday by a political protest headed up by local members of the Hospital Employees Union (HEU) as part of an initiati

Todd Lawson and John French

Chief Staff Writers

Picket lines at Squamish General Hospital (SGH) and Hilltop House were replaced on Thursday by a political protest headed up by local members of the Hospital Employees Union (HEU) as part of an initiative to spark a general strike across the province.

Bill 37, which orders the HEU members back to their jobs at reduced wages and a long work week, passed through the B.C. Legislature very early Thursday morning; however, hospital workers in Squamish and around the province did not immediately return to their cleaning, cooking and nursing assistance jobs. Instead, they chose to keep their picket lines up and call the lines political protests.

"Jim Sinclair [president of the B.C. Federation of Labour] is calling for a general strike," said Barb Patura, chair of the local HEU representing the hospital workers. "Unjust laws will create civil disobedience."

After four days of job action, striking health care workers at health facilities across the province were legislated back to work by the provincial Liberal government.

"The Campbell Liberals continue to demonstrate nothing but disdain for the women and men working on health care's front lines," said HEU secretary-business manager Chris Allnutt Thursday morning. "Once again, this premier and his government have callously rewritten the law to suit their privatization agenda in health care and violated the legal rights of tens of thousands of workers in the process. Bill 37 is nothing short of a stinging indictment of this government's failure to deal honestly, openly and cooperatively with those who deliver health care to British Columbians."

The provincial government said Wednesday night that the back-to-work legislation was needed to protect patient care in the province.

"The parties have been working for over a year to try to obtain a negotiated settlement to this dispute," said Labour Minister Graham Bruce. "An agreement was reached last year between the employers and the union leadership, and the union membership rejected that deal. Despite repeated attempts since then, the two parties are no loser to reaching an agreement, and patients are suffering. We clearly have to intervene to end this dispute for the sake of patients, so that surgery backlogs caused by job action do not continue to grow.

"The union has 14 days to ask me to appoint an arbitrator," Bruce said. "The arbitrator will have 60 days to work with the parties to reach an agreement on the compensation package or to arbitrate a settlement. The arbitrator will have the authority to make decisions on where the reductions will be made, such as to hourly wages, overtime or shift premium time and to benefits such as vacation and sick time. However, pay equity adjustments will be protected."

A provincial government news release reports that the back to work legislation increases the work week to 37.5 hours from 36, with a corresponding four per cent reduction in hourly rates.

"These measures are necessary because health labour costs are significantly out of line with other provinces, and must be affordable in order to ensure health care is sustainable," said Bruce.

"This is a dangerous piece of legislation which puts the rights of all workers at risk and will further deepen the chaos this government has inflicted on health care over the last three years," said Allnutt.

The picket lines went up in front of SGH and Hilltop House in an effort to win a fair contract that protects jobs and services within the health care industry.

The Hospital Employees Union (HEU), the British Columbia Nurses Union (BCNU), and the B.C. Federation of Labour joined hands to rally behind the decision to take job action due to health employers' continued refusal to put layoffs on hold during negotiations and move off their massive concessions demands.

"We want them to stop contracting out our jobs," said Patura. "Wages are not the issue - job security is the issue."

The province-wide job action began on Sunday (April 25), when job action by health support workers quickly escalated from an overtime ban to a full-scale strike. At press time, there were a total of 10 day surgeries cancelled at SGH, and 99 patients had appointments cancelled. Inpatient surgeries (surgeries which require patients to stay in the hospital after the surgery has been performed) have not been cancelled. All non-urgent, non-emergency procedures and surgeries were postponed.

In front of Squamish General Hospital this week, striking workers walked with protest signs and were showered with support in the form of honking horns from drivers passing by. Federal NDP candidate Nicholas Simons also stopped by on Tuesday (April 27) to support the group.

"I'm here to show my support to the workers, many of whom have worked 20-plus years only to suddenly lose their jobs to privatization," said Simons. "They need to put a complete moratorium on outsourcing and privatization while negotiations are ongoing. You can't kick somebody while they're down," he said.

SGH workers were required to stay on the picket line for a minimum of four hours per day, five days a week. They were compensated by the HEU and received $250 per week plus $35 per week per dependent.

According to Patura, patient care at SGH is not affected, as essential services workers and management are picking up the slack.

Essential services provide an agreed staffing level that is negotiated between the union and the employer to provide the basic level of care in the hospital.

Talks stalled last week when health employers tabled an offer with more, not fewer, concessions and refused to put the 2,500 pink slips issued since bargaining began on hold.

According to Louise Simard, President and CEO of the HEABC, requests from the HEU have been unfair. "Not only have the unions refused to bargain and discuss meaningful savings, they are demanding wage and other increases, and they are demanding employers put other savings on hold by stopping contracting out," said Simard.

The HEABC is the non-governmental member organization that acts as the accredited bargaining agent for approximately 330 employer organizations providing publicly-funded health care services to the people of B.C.

As of The Chief's press deadline, unionized workers in Squamish were not acting on the call for a general strike; however, Allnutt told HEU members at a Vancouver rally that other unions are support the HEU. He said workers from other unions around the province will support the call for a general strike today (April 30).

The BCNU recommended yesterday that its members return to work. A release noted that the union cannot counsel members to refuse to go to work.

"If they make an individual choice not to got to work, the union will support and defend them as always," the release said.

A news release from Barry O'Neill of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) encouraged all CUPE members not at work to join HEU members at their political protests.

"The Campbell Liberals must agree to stop privatizing and negotiate a fair settlement now or the working people of B.C. will be forced to take all-out action to defy them," O'Neill said in the release issued Thursday afternoon.