Labour unions urged the Pallister government Monday evening to scrap a bill that would shrink the number of health-care bargaining units in Manitoba and force them to compete with each other for members in a series of representation votes.
While the government has said the goal of its proposed legislation is to streamline the collective bargaining process, the unions argued that the system already works efficiently with joint bargaining taking place on such major issues as wages, benefits and pensions.
They also said they’ve offered government an alternative proposal to Bill 29 (The Health Sector Bargaining Unit Review Act) but have yet to receive a response.
"This bill has the potential to cause significant disruption in our health-care system," said Sandi Mowat, president of the 12,000-strong Manitoba Nurses Union.
"At a time when our health-care system is facing cuts and restructuring we simply don’t need an additional distraction," Mowat told a multi-party committee of MLAs.
Bill 29 would create seven bargaining units for each health region and provincewide employer. By the government’s count, there are 182 health-care bargaining units in Manitoba. There are five health regions in the province.
Unions representing health-care workers repeatedly told the public hearing that they are willing to work with the government to develop an alternative to the bill that all could live with.
Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, noted that the proposed legislation would establish employer councils to bargain with unions in each region. He said the unions would be willing to create labour councils to bargain contracts on behalf of workers.
He said the proposal by organized labour is doable and preferable to Bill 29, while avoiding the uncertainty and disruption of holding a series of votes among tens of thousands of health-care workers to decide which union would represent them.
"We urge the government to hit the stop button — or at minimum the pause button — on Bill 29 and allow us some time to work with Manitoba Health on a better way forward," Rebeck said.
Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union, called Bill 29 "heavy-handed."
"I have been through three rounds of representation votes, and I know first-hand just how disruptive they are," she told the legislative committee. "To claim they are necessary to improve patient care ignores this reality."
Beatrice Bruske, with Local 832 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, said what concerns her union most is that the bill appears "simply to be a way to pit unions against one another."
"Hospitals are a very stressful place for our members to work," she said. "This bill and the resulting amalgamation votes would be a distraction for our members, quite frankly."
UFCW represents hospital support workers, health-care aides as well as social workers, physiotherapists and occupational therapists.
Rebeck said any effort to reform collective bargaining in the health sector should adhere to three basic principles: protecting and improving patient care; supporting and respecting health-care professionals in their work; and respecting the democratic decisions health-care workers have made in choosing which union to represent them.
The public hearing into Bill 29 occurred simultaneously with a hearing on the Pallister government’s public sector wage bill.
More than 50 people attended the meeting, with some visiting both sessions, just down the corridor from each other on the second floor of the Legislative Building.
Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen attended the committee hearing, but asked few questions. He mainly thanked presenters for their submissions. A total of 31 people were scheduled to speak.