By Hanne Gidora

HEALTH CARE EMPLOYEES in BC these days are experiencing strange feelings of
deja vu. Collective agreements are expiring, the province faces a growing
health care crisis, and the Health Employers' Association of BC (HEABC) is
tabling concession demands. At the last BC Federation of Labour convention,
Premier Dosanjh promised “free collective bargaining for 2001.” Obviously
somebody forgot to inform HEABC of this directive.

“I'm frankly surprised that health employers are nostalgically clinging to
the bargaining practices of the Vander Zalm era,” says Hospital Employees
Union (HEU) secretary-business manager Chris Allnutt. “British Columbians
expect more.”

HEU and the BC Government and Service Employees Union are determined to
achieve “one contract for all,” to erase inequities between the facilities
and community care sectors, and to ensure seamless care delivery.
Bargaining started in December 2000.

The Nurses' Bargaining Association surprised many by going public with
their main proposal of a hefty wage increase. Even more surprising to the
employer is the wide support they have generated.

The nursing shortage is painfully obvious to anybody in need of health
care. Closures of hospital beds, programs and emergency departments have
become daily news in BC. But at this bargaining table, HEABC is demanding
reductions in vacation time, sick leave, LTD benefits, call-in by
seniority, and thirteen more unacceptable concessions, down from
thirty-three at the beginning. So far no wage offer has been made, but
nurses are being told if vacation time was reduced up to ten days per year,
the money could be used to improve wages.

Things don't look much better at the Paramedical Table. Health Sciences
professionals perform functions such as X-ray, physiotherapy and pharmacy,
functions that are indispensable for health care.

These professions are also experiencing shortages, for strikingly similar
reasons: an aging workforce, insufficient numbers educated in BC,
competition from other jurisdictions (including more and more the private
sector), and working conditions that deter recruitment and retention, such
as excessive on-call and high occupational injury rates.

The chronic health care shortages were initiated by federal cutbacks in the
early '90s; federal funding for health care is still $260 million below
1992 levels. To its credit, BC's NDP government has picked up much of the
cost, but it has also created greater insecurity and insufficiency of
services through Regionalization. Increased funding has not meant better
wages and working conditions, at least for workers; CEOs have experienced
increases of up to 100%.

When Ottawa announced with great fanfare that the provinces would get some
crumbs from the loaf it took away previously, special interest groups in
the form of medical supply companies pushed to the trough. For the first
time in ten years we heard that hospitals need new equipment rather than
qualified personnel. And the propaganda worked: Ridge Meadows Hospital in
Maple Ridge, for example, with 88 acute care beds, will receive a CT
scanner. Whether there will be staff to run this expensive piece of
diagnostic equipment is a different question.

Why, in the 21st century, is a highly developed country such as Canada
unable to deliver consistent high-grade health care and decent wages and
working conditions for public employees? The answer is simple: “It's the
economy, stupid,” more precisely, the capitalist economy. Any lingering
ideas that capitalism can be given a human face are being eroded by the
deterioration of public services which workers have defended in many
difficult battles.

NAFTA has thrown the door wide open for US style private health care. In
BC, areas such as long-term care have long been a two-tiered system. Many
diagnostic services are now more quickly available in the private sector
than in our public hospitals. Despite the myth that increasing private
services will “free up” spaces on waiting lists in the public sector, there
are only so many health care professionals to go around. Private services
leech away personnel, not to mention money from the public purse.

What is the solution? The unions state that recruitment and retention can
only be achieved through significant improvements to wages and working
conditions. Creating more spaces to educate health care workers is good,
but neither quick enough nor sufficient to address the present crisis.
Sixty-eight percent of graduates at University of Victoria's School of
Nursing are not planning to work in the profession in BC. Other
jurisdictions provide much higher wages as well as more professional
support and other incentives.

Facilitating more immigration and faster access to professional
qualification will help, but since the nursing shortage is global, this
alone will not solve the problem. An end to the racist discrimination that
forces many Filipino nurses to work as domestic servants rather than in
their profession is long overdue, but again, it will not be enough.

There must be a concerted struggle by the labour movement, political and
social justice organizations to challenge the capitalist agenda. Health
care and public services in general can be a rallying point for many
different groups. Lobbying the government is not enough, we must bring the
fight into the streets.

BC is on the eve of a provincial election. The NDP has thoroughly
discredited itself among working people by its right-wing policy shift, and
provincial Liberal leader Gordon Campbell has promised sweeping attacks on
workers' rights.

We need a provincial government that is truly committed to workers' rights
and interests. This means progressive policies in reality, not only in
convention statements. The election campaign will be an excellent
opportunity to bring health care demands to the forefront. Candidates
should be prepared to answer tough questions, and to be judged on their
parties' record.

(The author is a nurse in a long-term care facility, and a union activist.)



By Kimball Cariou

THE BANNER HEADLINE on the front page of the March 9th Vancouver Sun read,
“Why we're all capitalists now.” But despite such examples of media hype,
Statistics Canada figures indicate that the gap between rich and poor is
getting wider.

A major Stats Can study issued in March showed that by 1999, just 10% of
Canada's 12.2 million families owned 53% of the country's net household
wealth, up from 51% in a 1984 study. The next 40% of families own 41% of
the net household wealth, while the bottom half of the population own just
6% of the total.

The figures reflect the totals of family-owned assets minus debts. Half of
all households showed a net worth of more than $81,000. Over 42% of all
family-owned assets are in the form of home and vehicle ownership, while
another 12% is in RRSPs. The bulk of family debt -- 77.5% -- consists of
home mortgages.

Not surprisingly, a number of factors affect the position of families.
Geographically, the average net worth of families ranges from a low of
$53,000 in Newfoundland to a high of $101,400 in Ontario. The median net
wealth of families headed by persons without a complete high school
education was $62,500, compared to $323,000 for families headed by someone
with a professional degree such as law or medicine.

A number of other statistics jump out from the study. Lone-parent families,
for example, headed in most cases by low-income women, faced a debt burden
almost twice the national average. While the median net worth of all
families rose 11% over the 15-year period, young couples with children saw
no increase in their average net worth.

As tuition and other costs rise, student debt loads skyrocketed over this
period, reaching a total of $14.9 billion by 1999, 6.2 times higher than in
1984. More than 1.4 million families reported student loan debts in 1999,
almost triple the 1984 figure.

Perhaps the most revealing part of the study looks at distribution of net
worth by deciles, or tenths of the population. The wealthiest ten percent
of Canadian families had a median net worth of $703,500, not far from
“millionaire” status. The figure for the second wealthiest tenth is
$338,100. For the twenty percent of the population in these two categories,
the median net worth rose 39% since 1984, to $403,500.

Meanwhile, the poorest tenth of Canadian families had a median net worth of
$2,100. In other words, over 1.2 million Canadian families have debts
outweighing their total assets. For the second poorest tenth, the median
net worth is a meagre $3,100. This twenty percent of Canadians saw almost
no change in their net worth over the 15-year period between the two

All these statistics are even more alarming in the context of an impending
recession in Canada. While economists argue whether a recession has begun
and how long it will last, layoffs are growing in a wide range of
industries. Almost 24,000 jobs were wiped out in February, the biggest
single-month job loss since 1996. Making matters worse, the social safety
net has largely been shredded since 1984, leaving millions of Canadians
with far less protection against the impact of capitalist crises. During
the mid-1980s, over 80% of unemployed workers were eligible to receive UI.
Cuts by the Mulroney Tories and the Chrétien Liberals have slashed that
figure to about 37%, and the benefit amounts have also been substantially

This means that a sudden climb in unemployment rates would leave huge
numbers of Canadians with no source of income, forcing them to cash in
hard-earned RRSPs and sell off other assets, and to lose their homes to the

Even many middle-to-upper income families are nervous about the situation.
Those who invested heavily in mutual funds and stocks over the last few
years have seen the value of their assets fall sharply, with no end in
sight. Many people who quit jobs to trade in stocks during the “bubble
economy” period are suddenly being forced to return to work in the “real

Stephen Roach, a highly-regarded Wall Street economist, is among those
warning that this “negative wealth effect” could plunge North America into
the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. As realization
grows that the reversal in stock prices is not a short-term phenomenon,
Roach says, consumer spending could be driven into the ground. The fact
that millions of people have switched from traditional savings patterns
into speculative investments is part of a “recipe for disaster,” according
to Roach.

But even while stock prices fall, one of the corporations leading the
decline has given its top executives staggering payoffs. Shares in Nortel
Networks have dropped from a high of $24 to the $1.50 range by mid-March,
triggering much of the Toronto Stock Exchange's plunge. But Nortel CEO John
Bell was paid $100 million US last year. A recent report filed with the
Ontario Securities Commission and U.S. regulators revealed that at least 14
top Nortel executives cashed out stock options early this year, raking in
millions of dollars in the weeks before the company's shares collapsed in

All in all, it looks like most Canadians are about to get poorer, while the
super-rich find ways to profit from the crisis generated by their own
capitalist system.



By Geoff Woad

CANADA'S LARGEST circulation daily, the Toronto Star, prides itself on its
history of championing social reform. Founded by striking printers in 1892,
the Star often promotes itself as the “paper of the people.” Now, in
perhaps the most competitive newspaper market in North America, Star
management appears ready to spend up to $26 million to break its newly
organized carriers' union.

Over two years ago, the newspaper's 2000 adult carriers organized with
Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union Local 87-M, the Southern
Ontario Newspaper Guild, which already represents editorial, circulation
and advertising workers at the Star.

Rather than bargain, the company argued to the Ontario Labour Relations
Board that the carriers were independent contractors and therefore
ineligible for union representation. Shortly after the Board's ruling in
the carriers' favour, Star management announced plans to outsource its
circulation department. This plan involves firing 200 circulation workers
already represented by the Guild, as well as the entire 2000-member carrier
union. In a union bulletin, Guild President John Deverell stated that the
Star appears to have foreseen the Board's ruling and taken steps to prepare
its union busting plans.

Many Star carriers are new Canadians who must work two or more jobs to
support themselves and their families. They get up at 3 am, use their own
vehicles and gas to deliver between 90 and 170 papers every weekday, and
receive 19 cents per paper. The Saturday paper rate is 60 cents, but the
carriers must do their own inserting of the paper's different sections.

If the paper is late being delivered, they are expected to sit in their
cars and wait, without being paid. In the past eight years, carriers have
seen their incomes reduced by 33 percent. The union opened bargaining
asking for a 25% increase in overall compensation.

The key issue for both sides is contracting out. The Star has attempted to
divide the circulation workers from the carriers, by offering an enhanced
severance package and pension for the 200 members of the circulation
department. This offer was contingent on the union completely surrendering
the carrier unit to the Star's outsourcing plans.

Not surprisingly, the union declined this “offer of suicide.” In response
to a company challenge to find some other way to save the $6 million the
Star expects from outsourcing, the union produced a plan to save $5.7
million. The company's response was to increase their expected savings to
$9 million and thereby dismiss the union's proposal.

Recognizing that their jobs and union were on the line, the carriers
delivered a 95% strike vote. During the week leading up to the strike
deadline, the carriers distributed a union bulletin with the paper, to Star
subscribers. The flyer asked subscribers to assist by encouraging Star
management to negotiate in good faith. Reportedly, the paper received so
many calls of “encouragement” that they set up a special phone line to
receive them.

On March 20, the union initiated picket actions at selected distribution
points across the Greater Toronto Area. This action severely delayed 45,000
newspapers, about 10% of the Star's circulation for the day, which were
eventually delivered by management and scabs. Similar picket actions on
March 23 resulted in delivery delays for about 65,000 papers.

According to Deverell, the union's actions are “turning the Toronto Star
into an afternoon paper.” The union's picket actions are expected to
escalate, and a community support network is being mobilized, with the
likely aim of a picket to shut down the Star's printing plant.

The only other major newspaper with a carriers' union is in Winnipeg, where
the union also struck to achieve its first contract and, after only four
days, won everything it was asking for. With unity and solidarity, history
will repeat itself.

Like many other newspapers, the Toronto Star practices what the Guild calls
“deep-shaft profit mining” from smaller newspaper operations. Through a
parent company, called Torstar, the Star extracts huge profits from
community papers across Toronto. One of these is Sing Tao, a Chinese
language daily paper with over 20,000 readers.

Sing Tao workers are paid between 20% and 35% less than their counterparts
at other Star-owned community papers. The paper requires all workers to
work one day for free on every second weekend, by claiming that the workers
are salaried. Sick of these and other sweatshop conditions, Sing Tao's 110
workers voted last year to join the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild.

The union opened bargaining for a first contract with a demand for wage
increases of 17% over two years, to bring the workers closer to wage
parity. The union is also seeking overtime after 38.5 hours and to convert
to a five-day week with two consecutive days off each week.

The company's response appears to swing between union busting and racism.
Senior managers at Sing Tao, with the collaboration of senior management at
the Star, concocted a cover story in order to fire a reporter for union
organizing. The Labour Relations Board has ruled that the managers acted in
bad faith. In terms of the demand for wage parity with other Star-owned
papers, management has insisted that the workers can only be compared to
other Chinese language papers, none of which are unionized.

The union and many community activists are concerned that Torstar is
attempting to maintain its cash-cow sweatshop by creating a wage ghetto for
Chinese Canadians. On March 21, the International Day for the Elimination
of Racism, they held a rally and press conference outside Toronto Star

The workers have given their union a 91% strike mandate. As they prepare
for a possible first-contract strike, they are asking community supporters
to demand that management stop exploiting Sing Tao workers and negotiate a
fair contract with the union.

(For updates on these struggles, check out the web site for the Southern
Ontario Newspaper Guild, CEP Local 87-M: www.song.on.ca.)



By Darrell Rankin

WINNIPEG - Hemi Mitic, special assistant to Canadian Auto Workers President
Buzz Hargrove, told a packed news conference on March 26 that Versatile
workers voted 83 per cent the day before to end their strike at the last
tractor factory in Canada.

The 240 strikers, members of CAW Local 2224, heard reports that new owner
John Buhler had started making tractors using 70 workers, mainly management
personnel, and that an unfair labour practice hearing was postponed for six
to nine weeks. Local 2224 has applied for $5 million in damages at the

According to the Manitoba Labour Relations Act, workers must be recalled
according to seniority once a union has written to the employer that the
strike is over. Buhler was refusing to recall workers according to
seniority, saying only that members may be recalled. Buhler said that he
planned to shut the factory down and move it to North Dakota, but that
there were jobs for 70 people for two years making tractors.
Communist Party of Canada
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