Despite threats from employers and the government and deep concern about their future spirits among HEU members in British Columbia are high, buoyed by the tremendous support they have received from other CUPE members and from the public and other unions.
CUPE National President Paul Moist visited with hundreds of HEU members and their supporters on protest lines Friday evening and Saturday morning, bringing them a strong message of solidarity and support from CUPE members from coast to coast.
The whole country is watching and every one of our half million members wishes they could be here standing with you shoulder to shoulder on the line, said Moist. This vicious attack by Gordon Campbell is an attack on women and an attack on public health care and you have our full support in standing up to this bully.
In particular, Moist carried a message of solidarity from CUPE members from Newfoundland and Labrador, back on the job but continuing to press for a negotiated settlement with the threat of back-to-work legislation hanging over their heads.
Your fight to protect your wages and your jobs is a fight for pay equity and quality health care and workers rights, he said. Stay strong, stay disciplined and know that we are here to back you.
At large hospitals and small nursing homes in the Vancouver area, Moist encountered members who after six days on the line two days after back-to-work legislation was rammed through the BC Legislature were solid in their determination to continue their protest until the government abandons its strategy of slashing jobs and privatizing health care.
Their eyes welled with tears as they told of the support they have received from others joining their lines municipal and school board workers, hydro workers, Air Canada mechanics, carpenters, papermill workers, postal workers, ferry workers, retirees and students as well as patients and residents.
In towns like Prince George and Comox, half the town was on the lines. At hospitals like Womens and Childrens, and St. Pauls, hundreds joined the protest; in Nanaimo, two thousand.
Speaking with members, HEU president Fred Muzin denounced the tactics and lies of the Campbell government, but he told them the public and the labour movement are united in saying that with Bill 37, the Campbell government has gone too far.
That was clearly the sentiment of the 20 seniors who along with 60 or more staff greeted Moist outside the Louis Brier Home and Hospital, the Jewish Home for the Aged inVancouver. Seated in lawn chairs or wheelchairs proudly wearing their HEU support placards, the residents applauded the determination of the staff to defend their rights. The president of the residents council gave Moist a message to read out a message calling on Campbell to do onto others as he would have them do onto him.
At the Vancouver General Hospital protest line, Moist met Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, walking the line at 9:00 p.m. Chief Stewart had brought a pledge of support, offering our solildarity to all health care workers who are being compelled to protect their hard earned gains in pay equity from the brutish and vicious attack of Gordon Campbells Bill 37.
He said First Nations peoples, many of whom have been adversely affected by the policies of the Liberal government, including the privatization of BC Rail, are carefully considering what options and opportunities we may pursue to demonstrate our solidarity.
For CUPE BC members, that show of support will continue Monday when they stage a community day of action. Up to 70,000 CUPE BC members across the province including municipal, education, transit and social service workers will participate in a day of action to protest the Campbell attack on public services and the communities that rely on them.
In announcing the action, CUPE BC president Barry ONeill said, We cannot stand by and let Campbell and the Liberals trample on our health care workers and the health care system. The premier has drawn a line in the sand that goes so deep working people are left with little choice but to defy this government.
That same spirit was echoed by the thousands who participated in Vancouvers May Day march, which focused on the HEU dispute and the attack on womens centres in BC. Chants of we wont back down intermingled with those calling for a general strike.
While maintaining their protest lines, HEU continues to press the government to end the threat to their members jobs and remove the most outrageous provisions of Bill 37. Our priorities are to prevent privatization by stopping the contracting out of health care work and to prevent unfair gouging of workers pay and benefits, said the HEUs Chris Allnutt, who is leading the negotiations with the government and employers.
Meanwhile, the employers are pressing through the courts for severe penalties to end the protest. And for HEU members, despite the exhilaration, the stress and strain continues.
For some who have already lost their jobs, prospects are bleak. Others wonder how they can make ends meet if their wages are to be cut 15 per cent. They are outraged the wage rollback is retroactive and ask how they can be forced to pay back a portion of wages they fairly earned. And they are indignant that the premier and employers would portray them as irresponsible, when they have been providing essential services and meeting the needs of the patients and residents for whom they care.
Many have 20, 25, 30 years of experience as health care workers. They have seen good times and bad. They have been in disputes before. But never has their dignity as workers been attacked so viciously. And never has it been so clear that they and their collective agreement have been directly targeted by a government; that they are seen not only as dispensible but dangerous: an obstacle to the privatization process.
Fortunately, the unprecedented and brutal nature of this attack is also readily evident to other workers and the public, moving them to rally behind the HEU membership. This support has helped them stand strong, united and determined.
Gordon Campbell may well have created his own worst nightmare.