Health Care Workers Fight Privatization in British Columbia

"When 5,000 skilled, experienced [health care] workers are put out on the street, will that make the care patients receive better, or worse?” The answer to this question, posed by Chris Allnutt, Secretary-Business Manager of British Columbia’s Hospital Employees Union, seems pretty obvious. Yet BC Premier Gordon Campbell is bent on outsourcing more than 5,000 hospital jobs by June, in what would be the most drastic step yet in his bid to privatize BC’s health care system and, in the words of one of his top aides, “crush” HEU “like a bug.”

Unfortunately for Campbell, HEU and its supporters will not go quietly. In what has been a month of sustained direct action across British Columbia, health care workers have staged a series of rallies and protests against what HEU President Fred Muzin calls “the government’s reckless health care policies of closures, cuts, and privatization.”

A MONTH OF ACTION

Braving sub-zero temperatures, health care workers in Prince George, BC, who cannot legally strike or walkout, came to work early and stayed late on March 6, setting up informational pickets outside of local health care facilities. As part of the second province-wide day of action in just over a month, these workers wore pins detailing how long they’d worked in health care so that, as Muzin put it, “the public will know what they’re losing if we’re sacked.”"When 5,000 skilled, experienced [health care] workers are put out on the street, will that make the care patients receive better, or worse?” The answer to this question, posed by Chris Allnutt, Secretary-Business Manager of British Columbia’s Hospital Employees Union, seems pretty obvious. Yet BC Premier Gordon Campbell is bent on outsourcing more than 5,000 hospital jobs by June, in what would be the most drastic step yet in his bid to privatize BC’s health care system and, in the words of one of his top aides, “crush” HEU “like a bug.”

Meanwhile, in Vancouver, the second large rally in a week was held outside of the Children’s and Women’s Hospital. Over 90% of the 5,000 workers targeted by Campbell’s layoffs are women, making these the largest mass layoffs of women in Canadian history."When 5,000 skilled, experienced [health care] workers are put out on the street, will that make the care patients receive better, or worse?” The answer to this question, posed by Chris Allnutt, Secretary-Business Manager of British Columbia’s Hospital Employees Union, seems pretty obvious. Yet BC Premier Gordon Campbell is bent on outsourcing more than 5,000 hospital jobs by June, in what would be the most drastic step yet in his bid to privatize BC’s health care system and, in the words of one of his top aides, “crush” HEU “like a bug.”

Less than a week earlier, on March 1, 2,000 health care workers, community activists, and concerned citizens took to the streets of Vancouver carrying banners bearing slogans such as “Act Now to Protect Health Care and Jobs” and “Stop the Cuts and Privatization.”"When 5,000 skilled, experienced [health care] workers are put out on the street, will that make the care patients receive better, or worse?” The answer to this question, posed by Chris Allnutt, Secretary-Business Manager of British Columbia’s Hospital Employees Union, seems pretty obvious. Yet BC Premier Gordon Campbell is bent on outsourcing more than 5,000 hospital jobs by June, in what would be the most drastic step yet in his bid to privatize BC’s health care system and, in the words of one of his top aides, “crush” HEU “like a bug.”

“Community support has been very strong,” says HEU communications officer Mike Old. While most of the demonstrators were HEU members, participants also came from the BC Nurses Union, the BC Government and Service Employees Union, teachers’ unions, anti-poverty groups, and senior citizens organizations.

This rally came on the heels of protests held in Nanaimo, where demonstrators braved the cold and pouring rain, and Chilliwack, one of the cities in BC that’s suffered most under the knife of provincial government cutbacks. Since Premier Campbell’s cutbacks began, Chilliwack has lost jobs and services at its general hospital while preparing to shut down Parkholm Lodge, a public health care facility for seniors.

To clear the way for Parkholm’s closure, the local health authority has been moving seniors from the lodge, involuntarily, and placing them in the general hospital’s extended care unit. As Gail Johnson, an activist with the Parkholm Closure Protest Committee, commented, “The government’s promise of ‘equal or better placement’ is becoming a cruel joke, as our parents and grandparents are being forced out of their single-room accommodations into rooms housing up to four residents.”"When 5,000 skilled, experienced [health care] workers are put out on the street, will that make the care patients receive better, or worse?” The answer to this question, posed by Chris Allnutt, Secretary-Business Manager of British Columbia’s Hospital Employees Union, seems pretty obvious. Yet BC Premier Gordon Campbell is bent on outsourcing more than 5,000 hospital jobs by June, in what would be the most drastic step yet in his bid to privatize BC’s health care system and, in the words of one of his top aides, “crush” HEU “like a bug.”

Since the forced transfers from Parkholm began last year, five Chilliwack seniors died shortly after being displaced, lending credence to Muzin’s belief that Campbell and his government are so bent on making a profit from health care that “they don’t care what it costs the people of British Columbia.”

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LEGISLATIVE VANDALISM

"When 5,000 skilled, experienced [health care] workers are put out on the street, will that make the care patients receive better, or worse?” The answer to this question, posed by Chris Allnutt, Secretary-Business Manager of British Columbia’s Hospital Employees Union, seems pretty obvious. Yet BC Premier Gordon Campbell is bent on outsourcing more than 5,000 hospital jobs by June, in what would be the most drastic step yet in his bid to privatize BC’s health care system and, in the words of one of his top aides, “crush” HEU “like a bug.”

"When 5,000 skilled, experienced [health care] workers are put out on the street, will that make the care patients receive better, or worse?” The answer to this question, posed by Chris Allnutt, Secretary-Business Manager of British Columbia’s Hospital Employees Union, seems pretty obvious. Yet BC Premier Gordon Campbell is bent on outsourcing more than 5,000 hospital jobs by June, in what would be the most drastic step yet in his bid to privatize BC’s health care system and, in the words of one of his top aides, “crush” HEU “like a bug.”

According to British Columbia residents, horror stories like those from Chilliwack have become far more common since the provincial government began pushing for health care privatization. In some ways, this push began with the passage of Bill 29, a bill that was called “legislative vandalism” by the Toronto Globe & Mail; Mike Old refers to Bill 29 as “one of the most extreme examples of union busting in North American history.”

In Old’s words, with Bill 29, Campbell’s government “[took] legal contracts and shredded them through legislation.” Under Bill 29, health care workers are stripped of seniority rights and may be transferred from job site to job site at their employers’ whim. Bill 29 makes it illegal for health care workers to discuss alternatives to privatization with their employers and it opens up all heath care services, from emergency rooms to x-rays and lab tests, to privatization.

The bill was passed in a highly secretive, late night legislative session, without public notification. Many British Columbians first heard about it when they woke up the next morning, January 28, 2002, and found it stamped into law.

To protest the passage and impact of Bill 29, on January 28 of this year, HEU workers staged a province-wide day of action in defense of their jobs and public health care. Events ranged from walkouts and pickets to a 4,000 person rally in downtown Vancouver. In Victoria, the provincial capital, workers staged a rally at the health authority’s offices that led to a group of workers occupying the building.

HEU activists also organized workplace actions across BC, including informational sessions focussed on the impact of Premier Campbell’s policies. These policies “are not about saving money,” says Fred Muzin. “This is just about transferring money to private companies.”

And it’s about union-busting too. Muzin believes that Campbell has never forgiven HEU for supporting his opponent in province-wide elections, and that the proposed cutbacks and layoffs are “punishment” for the union’s lack of support. Campbell hails from BC’s Liberal Party, which has been pushing a pro-privatization agenda across the province. The same weekend that Bill 29 was passed, Campbell’s Liberals rushed Bills 28 and 29 through the legislature, gutting public education contracts the same way that Bill 29 gutted health care contracts, and allowing for outsourcing in various areas of public education.

Campbell’s frantic push towards privatization may be backfiring. Despite all of the anti-union rhetoric being used by the government, public support for HEU’s positions appears to be growing, as evidenced by turnout at recent protests and polls suggesting that more than 80% of British Columbia residents support efforts to find alternatives to health care privatization.

Besides continuing with rallies and demonstrations, HEU is fighting health care privatization in the courts. This April, BC’s Supreme Court will hear a case brought by HEU against the government, charging that Campbell and the legislature violated the union’s rights when they passed Bill 29 and threw out the union’s contract. “We’re going to keep the pressure on,” says Muzin. “The future of public health care up here depends on it.”