The smallest bill of the session prompted one of the longest, most intense debates.
It was a one-line amendment that recognizes several thousand licensed practical nurses have left the Hospital Employees Union to join the B.C. Nurses’ Union.
But it exposed a sore spot that the Opposition New Democrats are quite sensitive about. It’s the breach between the nurses’ union and the rest of organized labour. It makes things uncomfortable for the Opposition, and they’ll get a lot more uncomfortable if they form government after the May election.
The bill effectively forced the NDP to pick sides formally in the legislature. The party has already made it obvious that they are backing the HEU and the rest of the labour movement, most of whom are on the outs with the nurses over their successful raid on the HEU.
NDP MLAs followed suit last week and, as sensitively as possible, came down on the side of the HEU. There was all sorts of due regard paid to the BCNU and its legal right to poach members from other unions. But there’s no mistaking the main message of the full-court press the NDP launched against the legislation. The NDP is as peeved at the nurses’ union as it is at the B.C. Liberal government for recognizing the result of the successful raid.
The Opposition’s views were clear when NDP leader Adrian Dix turned down the invitation to speak at the nurses’ recent convention.
The nurses’ union is officially non-partisan, but the HEU is an enthusiastic supporter of the NDP, to the tune of about $100,000 in the last reported year. The union is tight with the NDP in other ways. Former HEU president Judy Darcy is running as a candidate.
Last week’s bill applies to licensed practical nurses employed by health authorities and simply states that they are in the same bargaining unit as other nurses (the BCNU).
The NDP’s main point of attack was that there was no consultation with the other unions or agencies involved. The government’s view is that the LPNs all had a chance to cast secret ballots on the certification, so the vote speaks for itself.
And the raid is a sensitive issue. Here’s NDP MLA Shane Simpson on the topic: “We all know that the nurses used the system … very effectively to essentially raid other unions and move a large number … of LPNs to the nurses’ union. They did that quite appropriately. They used the tools that were available to them and successfully did that. That’s quite appropriate under the terms of the code, and that’s what they did. However people might feel about that, they did it appropriately under the code.”
That’s the sound of someone grudgingly recognizing something he’s unhappy about.
Others echoed the same theme — it was all within the rules, but … .
The bill wasn’t even passed before Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid was posting comments critical of NDP plans to do away with secret-ballot certifications. Dix has expressed a preference for simple card sign-ups, as was past practice. Joining or changing a union would involve just signing up a majority of employees, with no secret vote.
In the house, she offered an innocent explanation of the bill. She said it’s in line with the vote, where 69 per cent of the LPNs voted to join the BCNU. She talked about easier opportunities and integration within the health system.
MacDiarmid said the government will consult with affected parties. But it will be very much after the fact.
The majority of LPNs, “in a very democratic and public way,” decided to change their union, she said.
So the government responded — with unusual alacrity. The bill passed on division but won’t take effect until the consultation is done. The next big contracts don’t expire until the spring of 2014.
In the background is the government’s goal of signing a 10-year deal with the BCNU. It’s the same impossible dream that foundered when they tried it with teachers, but seems to be progressing, as far as nurses are concerned.
The Opposition has scorned the idea, but what’s not to like about peace with nurses for 10 years?
As far as the NDP is concerned, any success the B.C. Liberals have should be viewed with suspicion. And if it’s based on collaboration with the bad girls of the labour movement, it prompts even more suspicion.
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