IN-DEPTH
Drawing the lessons of the HEU strike
May 10, 2004

The strike of 43 000 health care workers in British Columbia ended on May 2 following a late-night agreement between leaders of the Hospital Employees Union (HEU), the BC Federation of Labour and the provincial government of Liberal Party premier Gordon Campbell.

The government had adopted the draconian Bill 37 four days earlier, on April 29. The bill imposed the health care employers' demands at the bargaining table, including a retroactive 15% pay cut, lengthening of the work week by one and a half hours, and the right to contract out hospital jobs to private companies that pay near-minimum wage.

Workers across British Columbia reacted to Bill 37 with a wave of solidarity strikes. Their job actions were picking up steam. Tens of thousands more were slated to walk off the job on Monday, May 3, including teachers, government and industrial workers. The HEU strike thus became a showdown by working people as a whole with the provincial government, which is widely hated for the radical cuts to social programs and working conditions of ordinary people carried out since its election in 2001. Here was a chance to fight back.

Amongst the HEU’s own members, there was a range of reactions to the last-minute deal. Some pointed fingers squarely at both the leadership of their union and at Jim Sinclair and the Federation of Labour.

The announcement of the settlement angered and dismayed many workers. Picket lines remained up the following day at most major hospitals. Some solidarity strikes went ahead as planned, including bus drivers and municipal workers in Victoria, and the entire workforce in the town of Quesnel in central B.C. Ferry sailings from Victoria, on Vancouver Island, to Vancouver were delayed at the beginning of the day.

"The government has learned a great lesson," Ken Robinson, an HEU leader in Kelowna B.C. told CBC Radio as he continued to walk the picket line on Monday. "If they pass a really bad bill against workers, all they have to do is take out a little of the worst part and then they can get it passed."

"I feel betrayed," said Susan Barron, a laboratory technician at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria as she returned to work. She told the Victoria Times-Colonist that she is a single mother who cannot afford a 15 per cent pay cut.

The strike began on April 25. The other unions in health care, including the 35 000 member BC Nurses Union and the 15 000 member Health Sciences Association, joined the HEU picket lines for the first four days. Health care in the province was reduced to essential services.

The settlement modified some of the provisions of Bill 37. The principal change was the agreement by the government, on behalf of the employers, to limit to 600 the number of additional jobs that could be contracted out over the two-year term of the new contract. A total of 6,000 jobs have already been cut.

"We were faced with a law and a government that was determined to privatise health care," said HEU spokesperson Chris Allnutt in explaining why the union accepted the settlement. "Our conclusion was that the best we could do under the circumstances was to limit the damage from that legislation and we did."

The HEU organised information meetings for members on the day of the settlement and through the following week. A meeting in Vancouver on May 5 was attended by 300 members. Many at the meeting agreed with those who spoke from the floor and argued that the union won important concessions from the government, and that it is a stronger union as a result of the strike action it took.

Seven Oaks talked to health care workers at several hospitals in the days following the end of the strike and found a wide range of views. "I've worked here for ten years and may be out of a job," explained Francine, a porter at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH). "We had lots of support from other unions, and it was building. Then, it was all gone so fast. I am angry at the union for that.

"The settlement puts a limit of 600 more jobs to be cut. But that's still a lot of people who will lose their job."

A member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) was disappointed. Her union had joined the HEU on the picket lines. "The public was on our side. I was surprised that the strike ended. I think we would have won more had we stayed out."

Cheryl, a cardiology technician at VGH and an HEU member, said that she "was angry at the union when the news broke. But I attended the information meeting later that day and started to think it was the best decision.

"Today, I am honored to be in the HEU. The strike achieved some important things. We made the government limit the number of jobs to be contracted out. The public now knows who we are and what we stand for. A lot of us see the union differently. I've never been involved in it before. Now, I’m going to tell everyone I see about our issues."

Many workers are now anxiously awaiting the next provincial election, scheduled for May 17, 2005. "At the end of the day," said Ken Robinson in Kelowna, "a change in government is where we have to go."

"We will have a chance to repeal Bill 37 when we repeal the government," the HEU’s Chris Allnutt told CBC Radio.

There will be high expectations of the New Democratic Party (NDP) at that time. It's the party that many working people look to as the alternative governing party to the Liberals. The NDP’s two MLAs argued against Bill 37, which was passed in a rare overnight session of the legislature. The party, though, was non-committal on restoring the wages and benefits of the hospital workers. NDP leader Carole James told Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer that if elected next year, her party would not undo the legacy of the Campbell government.

"Unfortunately, you can’t go back in time," said James, commenting on the privatised jobs in the hospitals.

But before next year's election, the unions and the Campbell government may do battle again. Teachers, nurses, and public sector workers who are members of CUPE are at, or near, the end of their collective agreements.

For Cheryl at VGH, the strike and its lessons will motivate further solidarity. "If anyone else is on strike and needs help, I'll be there. If the government keeps attacking the unions, we'll do it again."

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