Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Out Saskatchewan way a real test of wills is shaping up between the right wing Saskatchewan Party provincial government and over 11,000 workers represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Having voted over 88% in favour of strike action in late November the health care workers have continued to negotiate with the government, but many are becoming frustrated enough to begin walkouts at any time. They do this despite legislation that defines pretty well all of what they do as an "essential service" which means that they legally barred from striking. What follows is an article from the Regina Leader Post. To follow developments check in with the SEIU's western Canadian website.
Health-care workers willing to defy legislation, SEIU says:
By Janet French
Some unionized health-care workers are willing to walk off the job, defying essential services legislation and potentially incurring hefty fines, if they can't reach a deal with health regions, the president of Service Employees International Union-West says.

"People are prepared to take that next step," union president Barbara Cape said late last week.

Last Friday, the union, which represents more than 11,000 health-care workers such as licensed practical nurses, special care aides, laundry, maintenance and food service workers and more, announced it is taking four regional health authorities to court over their latest essential services plans.

Cape says lawyers have filed a notice of motion for a judicial review of essential services plans given to the union by Saskatoon, Cypress, Five Hills and Heartland health regions, and have also asked for a judicial review of the Public Service Essential Services Act itself.

The union is challenging the constitutionality of the act, and the plans.

Three health-care unions representing 25,000 workers -- SEIU-West, Saskatchewan General and Government Employees Union, and Canadian Union of Public Employees -- bargain together, and have been without a contract since March 2008.

The parties had been at the bargaining table, but those talks broke off in early December.

In a late-November strike vote, SEIU members voted 88 per cent in favour of job action.

When health regions delivered the union their essential services plans that day, Cape says the employers had declared at least 90 per cent of the workers "essential," which she says was more onerous than plans the health regions had handed over earlier this year.

"It takes away our right to strike, if not, severely limits our right to strike in support of collective bargaining," Cape said.

Susan Antosh, president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations, which bargains on behalf of the health regions and Saskatchewan Cancer Agency, says the regions did meet with the unions to try and agree on an essential services plan in advance, but the parties were not able to reach agreements.

They had also discussed, but failed to reach an agreement on providing replacement workers in the event of a strike.

Essential services legislation says as soon as there is a threat of job action, employers must present an essential services plan to the union, and notify workers, if no such agreement has been struck in advance.

Antosh said a strike vote means the unions could give 48-hour strike notice at any time.
Because hand-delivering letters to thousands of employees takes more than two days, Antosh said health regions opted to hand out their plans earlier.

Antosh also said the essential services plans handed over in February, then after each union's strike vote, were the same, if not less demanding than initial plans. Each plan declared about 75 per cent of the full-time workload to be essential, Antosh said. She admits that may work out to affect more than 90 per cent of the employees, but didn't have exact numbers.

During talks with members across the province before the strike vote, Cape said several workers claim they are willing to defy legislation and walk off the job to get a fair deal. Cape said the union is attempting to discourage workers from doing that.

Defying the essential services legislation could result in "significant" fines against the worker and the union -- $2,000 on the first day for a worker, and $400 on every subsequent day, Cape said.

"I don't know any health-care workers, let alone any person in the province, who can afford that kind of fine," she said.

Antosh also discourages any workers from breaking the law, but adds those are personal choices health regions cannot control.

When asked what assurances Antosh could provide that health-care services will be there for Saskatchewan people in the event of a strike, Antosh said the employers have done everything they can under current legislation.

"The employer is extremely interested in ensuring the services are provided, and people of Saskatchewan actually have access to the services that they need," she said. "That is not a decision or something that I have the ability to control."

During talks, the unions asked for wage increases of five per cent in 2008, five per cent in 2009 and five per cent in 2010.

SAHO countered with a proposal of a 9.4 per cent pay increase over four years, with additional incentives for hard-to-recruit professionals.

Cape calls the essential services plans a "stall tactic," that's preventing the parties from reaching an agreement, instead of a tool to ensure public safety during a strike.

Antosh maintains essential services agreements and collective bargaining are two independent processes, and that one shouldn't affect the other. (She probably said this with a straight face too-Molly )

However, there is hope bargaining will resume soon between the unions and SAHO. Both parties have agreed to work with government conciliator Doug Forsyth, and Antosh is hopeful more bargaining dates will be scheduled for January.

The essential services legislation was enacted in Saskatchewan in May 2008, and raised the ire of several labour groups and official Opposition both before and after it became law.

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