Union says health-care workers being 'held hostage' in contract negotiations, files Labour Board complaint

The union representing about 7,500 health-care support workers filed a complaint with the Manitoba Labour Board Wednesday, putting pressure on dozens of employers, including hospitals and long-term care facilities, to begin contract negotiations.

MGEU represents 7,500 health-care support workers; most saw contracts expire last March

The union representing 7,500 health-care support workers has filed a complaint with the Manitoba Labour Board after months of waiting for contract negotiations to start. The employees include cleaning staff, aides and clerical workers, among others. (Bernice Kim/CBC)

The union representing about 7,500 health-care support workers filed a complaint with the Manitoba Labour Board Wednesday, putting pressure on dozens of employers — including hospitals and long-term care facilities — to begin contract negotiations.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union complaint names 26 employers, including St. Amant Centre, the Pan Am Clinic and Victoria General Hospital, accusing the employers of failing to negotiate in good faith and failing to make reasonable efforts to renew collective agreements with support workers such as cleaning staff, aides and clerical workers.

While the MGEU's complaint is directed at employers, union president Michelle Gawronsky says the province is ultimately responsible for the delays.

"We recognize that the employer, and even the Labour Relations secretariat office, does not have final say on when we move forward and how we move forward. They are representing government," Gawronsky said.

All but one of the bargaining units represented by MGEU in the complaint saw their contracts expire in March 2017. The union expected negotiations to begin last summer.

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen declined to provide a statement Saturday in response.

"We are unable to comment as we are not the employer and have not been notified of such action," a spokesperson for Goertzen said.

Health care in 'chaos': union

When negotiations did not begin last summer, MGEU wrote twice to the employers' bargaining representative, the Labour Relations secretariat office, asking for a start date, according to documents provided to CBC.

A letter from the office in response says because the province's Bill 29, The Health Sector Bargaining Unit Review Act, had yet to come into effect, they could not begin the bargaining process.

The Progressive Conservative government's bill seeks to cut the number of bargaining units in Manitoba's health sector down from the current 183.

Bill 29 was passed by the provincial government last year, but has not been proclaimed and so is still not in effect.

Union leaders have criticized the bill because, among other things, it gives government the power to appoint a commissioner to determine the composition of bargaining units.

Gawronsky does not see why the legislation should interfere with contract talks.

"Bill 29 has nothing to do with bargaining. We fully expect to just get to the table and bargain," she said.

"We're disappointed and our members feel that they are being held hostage with Bill 29 because they can't move forward with their collective agreement."

Gawronsky says delays to the bargaining process have added "insult to injury" for health-care workers facing disruption during the first phase of major changes to hospitals and health systems, which the province began last year.

"Health care is in chaos in the province," Gawronsky said. She describes morale among health-care workers right now as "horrible."

"Our members deserve better than that. They deserve to be respected and valued for what they do."

MGEU's complaint is now in the hands of the Manitoba Labour Board, which will decide how to move forward.

With files from Sean Kavanagh