B.C. and health care unions settle 6-year dispute

The provincial government and several unions representing health workers have settled a dispute over a controversial law six years after it was first enacted.

A coalition of of health care unions has won an $85 million victory in a six-year-old dispute with the provincial government over the B.C. Liberal's controversial Bill 29

In 2002, the Liberal government inflamed unions by passing the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act, known as Bill 29, which allowed the province to tear up the B.C. Hospital Employees' Union contract and led to the layoff of more than 8,000 unionized health-care workers.

The unions fought back in the courts, and on June 8, 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the collective bargaining process was protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that parts of the controversial bill were unconstitutional. It gave the government one year to negotiate a settlement with the unions.

On Monday morning, the provincial government and the Health Employers Association of BC announced they signed four tentative settlement agreements with the Community Bargaining Association, the Facilities Bargaining Association, the Health Science Professionals Bargaining Association and the Nurses' Bargaining Association.

Judy Darcy, who led the negotiating team for the multi-union Facilities Bargaining Association over the last four months, called the agreement "a milestone for health care workers." The FBA represents about 40,000 nursing assistants, practical nurses, food service workers, lab assistants, skilled trades, IT workers and others and was the unit most affected by Bill 29.

"Our members have been struggling for six long years to regain rights that were stripped away by the B.C. legislature," said Darcy in a written statement.

"This agreement delivers long overdue justice to those whose rights were trampled by Bill 29. As a result of this agreement and the court's ruling, our members can once again freely negotiate on fundamental issues like contracting out and consultation," she said.

As part of the deal, the provincial government will spend $85 million on retraining, clinical upgrading and professional development for employees affected by Bill 29. The largest allocation will go to the FBA. 

"British Columbians have called for greater consultation and collaboration amongst the parties involved in health-care delivery, as highlighted by the Supreme Court decision last year," said provincial Health Minister George Abbott in a written statement released Monday.

"These agreements provide for ongoing input and discussion to take place between the government and the four bargaining associations in ways that respect the interests of all parties," said Abbott

"B.C.'s health employers retain the option to contract out certain services," said Louise Simard, president and CEO of the Health Employers Association. "This allows employers the necessary flexibility in the delivery of health-care services to provide quality care for patients."