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Theres a high stakes struggle under way in BC that will have huge implications for the future of the labour movement.

Some see it as a battle over members. Which union will represent health care workers hired to do jobs that have been contracted out?

CUPE sees it as a battle over privatization and workers rights. How is the labour movement going to resist Gordon Campbells privatization agenda and defend workers wages and working conditions?

For the past year, the controversy has swirled through British Columbia. But since CUPEs convention, concern is bubbling over from coast to coast with federations of labour in New Brunswick, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Alberta weighing in.

Fighting privatization and improving workers lives

This fight is not about members, its about workers and their ability to earn a wage that would support a family, says Paul Moist, CUPEs newly-elected National President. And its about how unions work together to fight privatization and improve workers lives.

At stake are the futures of thousands of health care workers in BC, workers who until recently were earning $18 an hour as food service workers and housekeepers, laundry workers and security guards in the provinces hospitals and nursing homes.

These workers mostly women, many of them immigrants and workers of colour have been members of the Hospital Employees Union (HEU), CUPEs BC health services division.

But the Campbell government has ripped up the contract protections that covered their jobs and privatized these jobs to multinational corporations with shoddy track records.

And the contractors have found a ready ally in a local of the Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers (IWA-Canada), which has signed so-called voluntary agreements that would see wages for these workers plummet to $9.50 an hour, with the risk they could fall further.

CUPE has said the workers hired into these jobs should have the right to organize with the union that has represented these workers and continues to fight for better wages and working conditions. And an impartial umpire appointed by CLC president Ken Georgetti agrees.

But at press time, a resolution remained beyond reach.

Liberals gutted job security

To understand the problem, you need to go back to January 2002 when Gordon Campbells Liberal government rammed Bill 29 through the BC legislature. Bill 29, introduced and passed over a weekend, gutted the job security provisions of the collective agreement covering HEU members in the health care sector and removed successor rights.

The HEU contract was the main barrier to the governments plan to privatize health care services in BC and successor rights were seen as a brake on the ability of the privateers to maximize their profits by slashing health care workers wages.

Lured by the prospect of making megabucks from the Canadian health care system, the biggest of the multinationals lined up for their slice of the pie. Sodexho, Aramark, Compass, Drake and others corporations with a track record of paying sub-standard wages around the world prepared bids for the more than 9,000 jobs slated to be contracted out.

But the privateers knew that to satisfy their greed, they needed more than union-free jobs and a green light to slash wages. They needed a compliant union that would pre-empt the organizing efforts CUPE had promised would follow.

Corruption exposed

They shopped around the unions of the BC Federation of Labour. All but the IWA said no. Showing their solidarity, the BCGEU and the UFCW cooperated with CUPE to expose the corruption and the blacklisting of HEU members that underlie the corporate bids.

But Local 1-3567 of the IWA agreed to sign deals with four companies to represent workers who had not yet been hired, in some cases for contracts that had not yet been tendered.

The provisions of the agreement are startling. Wages would be chopped in half to $9.50 an hour. Fewer benefits, longer hours, no pension. Direct payments would be made by the employer to the IWA and the union would set up a separate company to recruit employees for the contractors.

So what does this mean for workers? Delegates to national convention heard first hand.

Brenda Jordison, who was fired after 24 years of service with a nursing home run by the Salvation Army in Victoria, told delegates of the workers brave struggle to keep their jobs. The deathblow came when their employer, emboldened by the concessions in the Compass agreement with IWA, demanded a cut of $500,000 rather than $180,000 from their wage package.

Must be stopped

Said Jordison, I knew that we had a struggle with our employer and I knew that we had one with the government but I never in my wildest imagination thought I would be in a fight with a labour union, the IWA, a member of the CLC.

Another sister from the Vancouver General Hospital, Doreen Plouffe, told delegates the stress and strain were unbearable, forcing at least one worker to attempt suicide. Calling on the IWA to back off, she warned delegates that if the BC government gets away with its privatization agenda, no public sector job in the country is safe. This will happen to each and every one of us in this room if we dont stop them, she said.

But the efforts to remedy the problem have been slow and tortuous. After months of protests from CUPE and a series of failed commitments by IWA, an impartial umpire ruled the IWA had contravened the CLC constitution.

Yet despite this ruling and an emergency motion unanimously adopted by the CLC convention in June 2002 calling for unions to develop a common strategy to oppose voluntary recognition agreements with these corporate privateers movement toward a resolution has been slow.

CUPE is continuing to press for a resolution that protects workers rights and gives them a fighting chance to increase wages and working conditions. In this the national leadership is backed by a powerful convention mandate.

Delegates were unanimous that CUPE must follow the work and continue to represent health care workers whose jobs have been privatized. That position has since won support at the BC Fed convention and in labour bodies across the country.

The battle is not yet won. But CUPEs principled position continues to win us allies.