On Thursday, August 22, Manitoba’s health care unions underwent a massive shift, with CUPE becoming the largest health care union in the province over MGEU. As mandated by the PC government’s Bill 29, the Health Care Bargaining Review Act, health care workers were required to vote whether to remain with their present union, or join another one, in order to reduce the bargaining units from 183 down to 7. The new seven bargaining units are broken down by job description: Professional-Technical/EMS workers, Facility Support workers, Community Support workers, Nurses, Doctors, Medical Residents, Physician Assistants and Clinical Assistants.
Over 20,000 health care workers participated in the votes, or 62% of all health care workers. CUPE was Thursday’s big winner, gaining 9,000 members, becoming Manitoba’s largest health care union. Manitoba Nurses Union gained 500 members, representing all Manitoba Nurses and the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals gained 2,000 members. MGEU lost 8,600 workers, and UFCW 832 lost at least 2,000.
UFCW and MGEU expressed disappointment, but directed frustration at pallister, calling for the need for unions to remain united.
UFCW 832 President Jeff Traeger put out a statement saying, “It would be easy for us to get mad at the other unions, but we cannot forget that this whole venture was designed by Pallister to pit union vs. union and worker vs. worker.”
MGEU President Michelle Gawronosky said, “This premier forced these votes on us. It wasn’t something that any of us chose. And they pitted union against union. We must unite again, and I know that we will.”
When Bill 29 was first announced in 2017, the Manitoba Federation of Labour sent a proposal to the government to reduce the number of bargaining units with less disruption: MFL president Kevin Rebeck said, “…we could create councils of unions; we can sort out those processes and have a smaller group meeting at a bargaining table that negotiates one set of rules, one collective agreement, for multiple facilities and let people keep the union they chose,”
But the government did not bite, and instead kept health care workers hanging for nearly two years, refusing to announce when the votes would even take place until June of 2019. Robert Pruden, the commissioner appointed to oversee the votes, stated the campaign period for unions would run from July 11 to Aug. 7, with voting beginning on Aug. 8 and ending Aug. 22.
On June 19th, just over a week after the health care campaigns began, Pallister announced the date for the provincial election, called an entire year early, on September 10. Clearly, the strategy has been to divide workers and tie up union resources during the provincial election period.
This comes after health care unions have protested throughout the past two years of the PCs health care system restructuring.
The system overhaul follows recommendations made in a report from Nova Scotia based health care consultant Dr. David Peachey. This report was actually commissioned by the previous NDP government, but clearly the PCs decided they liked what they saw in the report and adopted it as their own.
Some of these changes include closing half of Winnipeg’s Emergency Rooms and converting them to Urgent Care Centres, closing 4 out of 5 Quick Care clinics, cutting the Mature Women’s Centre, and breastfeeding, audiology, recreational and occupational therapy programs.
Rural Manitoba health care has also been hard hit, with the government closing 18 rural EMS stations, removing financial incentive for medical students to practice in rural areas, privatizing the LifeFlight air ambulance service, and removing the air ambulance subsidy. Thompson General Hospital has had to cancel elective surgeries due to 3 out of 4 ER rooms experiencing water damage, as funding to fix the roof has not come fast enough.
The government also plans to turnover administration of the entire health care system to an organization called Shared Health. NDP and Liberal opposition have concerns, saying this reduces public transparency and the ability to know which services and positions have been cut. Shared Health also oversees “business functions,” meaning contracting out services to private entities, which it already does for CancerCare and the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba.
Manitoba health care workers have reported increased wait times, understaffing, depression, despair and burnout throughout these changes.
No Harm Reduction in Response to Opioid Crisis
In response to the opiod crisis, Pallister has refused to validate the calls from harm reduction activists, health care providers and every day Manitobans who support the creation of a supervised consumption site. Instead, Pallister announced a 10 million dollar plan last week to improve safety downtown, including foot patrols, security cameras, improved lighting and shared communication systems between the police, private security and volunteer downtown patrols, as well as a plan to crack down on panhandling.
At the Poverty and Hunger Forum on August 20, the Liberals, NDP and Greens all supported safe consumption sites. The PCs did not show up to that forum, saying that Make Poverty History Manitoba, the non-partisan coalition that organized the event was “antagonistic” to their party.
The Manitoba Provincial election will take place on September 10, 2019, but advanced voting has already started. But these are not the only election results that will impact Manitobans’ futures. The forced health care votes pitted union against union, complicating the labour’s ability to fight Pallister as a unified front. Should the PCs get another term, health care unions will have to find ways to mend any rifts the votes have caused, and come out stronger for it – because Pallister shows no sign of abating his attacks on the health care system.