The B.C. government is toying again with the idea of a 10-year labour deal, this time with the province’s nurses. Long-term labour peace certainly sounds attractive, but the government, regardless of which party is at the helm, and its workers need to improve relations in the shorter term before expending time and resources on a concept with such little hope for success.
Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid says the government, the Health Employers Association of B.C. and the nurses have had informal talks about working out a longer-term agreement, but said the government has not set a specific 10-year goal.
The informal discussions have alarmed the heads of B.C.’s six health authorities, who say the talks have taken place without their knowledge or consent. They insist that the HEABC, of which they are members, should immediately refrain from negotiations.
The health authorities have reason to be concerned. A 10-year agreement could impose significant costs and restrictions on a system already struggling to match a growing workload with limited funding.
Last fall, Premier Christy Clark mused about establishing long-term labour peace for the education system, and in January, the government outlined its proposals for a 10-year agreement with teachers. The concept got short shrift from B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Susan Lambert, who said teachers would never agree to the proposal.
We can’t fault the premier for good intentions. Who wouldn’t want to see a decade in which B.C. education and health care were not disrupted by bitter negotiations and labour unrest?
But it wouldn’t be in the interest of employers or workers to sign such a long-term deal.
Look at the economic upheaval that has occurred in the past 10 years. Who could predict what the next decade will bring? Employers could be burdened with unmanageable costs, or employees could be stuck with wages that wouldn’t reflect economic realities. Technological changes or population shifts could bring about changes in the workplace that we can’t foresee now. Some of today’s jobs might not exist 10 years from now.
To cast all the contract’s conditions in concrete would be dangerous, but the escape clauses and mechanisms for amendments required to accommodate changing conditions would render the whole exercise pointless.
While Debra McPherson, president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union, says a 10-year agreement is not under discussion, she says nurses are amenable to a longer-term agreement, and four years would be ideal.
That’s a more reasonable and realistic approach. With current contract periods, it seems everyone is always negotiating or on the verge of negotiating. Lengthening the time between bargaining sessions could let people focus on their work instead of on the next round of contract talks.
Clark’s quest for long-term labour peace has been dismissed by some observers as electioneering, but a campaign is as good a time as any to put forward proposals and trot out new ideas, allowing the public to pass judgment.
The goal of long-lasting workplace stability in health care, education and other public realms should not be dismissed out of hand.
But trying to get there in one giant leap is more likely to result in a big fall. Better to take it one practical step at a time.
And if those steps are to succeed, all parties affected should be involved from the beginning.
© Copyright 2013