Freezes, uncertainty driving certifications in health care

Wage increases only one factor motivating Ontario public-sector employees: Unions

The recent decision by 1,250 registered nurses at London Health Sciences’ University Hospital in London, Ont. to join the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) is the latest in a string of certifications among health-care workers in Ontario.

Thousands of employees at more than a dozen hospitals across the province have unionized over the past two years, including nurses at two of the province’s largest hospital networks.

One factor has been the freeze on non-unionized public-sector wages since 2010.

About one-quarter of health-care workers in Ontario do not bargain collectively and, as a result, are now earning less than their unionized colleagues who have seen increases, in part because arbitrators ignored the provincial government’s request to voluntarily hold the line.

For registered nurses, this has resulted in a roughly three per cent gap between unionized and non-unionized employees.

But the wage freeze is only one of the factors for the recent certifications, says ONA president Linda Haslam-Stroud.

“In the ONA, we’re not aggressively pursuing certification,” she says. “However, when non-unionized nurses are looking at advocacy and having a voice in these facilities, and when there’s a wage freeze in place, that has had them looking.”

The ONA, which represents 60,000 registered nurses in Ontario, has organized 10,000 new members over the past eight years.

Aside from wages, registered nurses are looking for a more collective, professional voice to discuss issues such as workload, health and safety, standards of practice and staffing levels, Haslam-Stroud says.

Similar issues faced employees at Houselink Community Housing in Toronto when they voted to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in January.

They chose SEIU, in part, because the union has achieved wage increases despite the provincial wage freeze, according to the union.

Meanwhile, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) has also seen a number of certifications, some connected to the provincial wage freeze.

Last fall, OPSEU added 95 new members at Hamilton Health Sciences.

A major factor for the group, which included rehabilitation therapists, advanced rehabilitation therapists and behaviour therapists, was the wage freeze.

However, like registered nurses, there are bigger issues facing non-unionized health-care workers that are pushing them toward unions, OPSEU spokesperson Don Ford says.

With several mergers in health care over the past few years, more contracting out and the trend toward private health facilities, many non-unionized employees are looking for a collective, legal voice, especially when it comes to successor rights, he says.

“In many cases they’re not worried about wage increases. They’re worrying about whether they’ll have jobs,” he says. “Non-unionized workers are looking and saying, if this happens to us we’ll have no say.”

However, Ford is concerned about how the proposed provincial budget could further impact certification and collective bargaining in the health-care sector.

The provincial budget would see health care increases reduced to an average of 2.1 per cent annually over the next three years, with no new money for compensation.

Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has said the government will use legislation to force salary restraint if labour negotiators refuse to hold the line.

And his government also plans to make changes to the arbitration process.

“That’s not exactly our interpretation of collective bargaining,” Ford says.

Meanwhile, the budget also suggests a shift toward more patient care in non-profit clinics and at home.

The result could actually be a gradual “de-unionization” of the health-care sector, according to Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/ Canadian Union of Public Employees.

“That’s the new model, to move out of unionized hospital settings into non-unionized private facilities,” he says, adding that cutting labour costs is often easier than addressing other costs, such new technology and the rising cost of pharmaceuticals.

Haslam-Stroud shares his concern.

“I’m really hoping this is not a race to the bottom for cheap, unskilled labour,” she says.

Meanwhile, Ontario conservative leader Tim Hudak has called for a mandatory public-sector wage freeze within all ranks of the public service.

He says the current wage freeze on non-unionized employees has pitted them against their unionized colleagues, creating an “unfair, two-tier compensation scheme.”

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