Hospitals and healthcare union enter new era of labour negotiations

(July 22, 2013 - Richmond Hill, ON) As negotiations between 34 of Ontario’s hospitals and SEIU Healthcare, Canada’s largest healthcare union, are set to begin, a new era of bargaining is about to unfold. At a conference last week, SEIU Healthcare members voted to no longer participate in a traditional central bargaining process with the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) and to immediately move to undertake negotiations with each hospital individually. 

“Today marks an historic day for hospital labour relations as our members have decided to move away from the central bargaining process with the OHA that has stopped working,” said Sharleen Stewart, President, SEIU Healthcare. “The only people central bargaining was working for were hospital CEOs, who were putting their own agendas first and ignoring the need for a province-wide recruitment and retention strategy for the frontline staff who actually make up the heart of healthcare.”

Since 1974 hospitals and unions have used a central bargaining process to determine working conditions, wages and benefits for hospital workers such as registered practical nurses, clerical, maintenance and support staff such as hospitality, laundry, and dietary. For a time, this process was useful in standardizing many practices and conditions, and driving improvements in quality care.

But two problems have arisen.

One, the OHA is asleep at the wheel. The association has been leaderless and rudderless at crucial moments for the hospital sector, and has cycled through four different chiefs in the last 18 months. It is currently without a permanent chief executive after the abrupt departure of association head Pat Armstrong in June.

Secondly, amid turmoil at the top, the OHA has seemed unable to corral powerful hospital CEOs, who often bring out-sized egos and personal agendas to the table.

In the absence of consistent leadership, these CEOs have been unable to reach consensus on key policy questions or recognize that various hospitals operate in very different ways and have different needs. For example, Ontario’s largest teaching hospital, Sunnybrook, will have very different concerns from a small rural hospital in northern Ontario.

“The OHA does not seem to be the organization it once was. As hospital CEOs have padded their paycheques and expanded their empires, they have increasingly lost touch with the frontline. There is a growing leadership vacuum in the hospital sector,” said Stewart.

In the past ten years no agreement has been finalized with the OHA without recourse to an Arbitration Board, resulting in costly delays and decisions that have been unsatisfactory for both parties. As a result, SEIU Healthcare has sent registered letters to 34 hospitals, informing them that labour negotiations will now take place on a workplace by workplace basis.

“Our members will now be taking on more responsibility for negotiating their own working conditions on a hospital by hospital basis,” continued Stewart. “This will be an opportunity to empower our members and democratize decision-making in our union. The decentralized process will help members resolve workplace challenges on a case by case basis, while giving them a renewed sense of ownership over their new contracts.”

“The OHA has consistently failed to address the needs of frontline hospital staff or put forward a positive agenda for change, blaming tight hospital budgets,” said Stewart. “This at a time when hospital CEOs and executives were routinely paid annual salaries of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, while never mind receiving tens of thousands in questionable perks such as paid memberships to gentlemen’s clubs, Jenny Craig weight loss programs and cosmetic surgery.”

“This waste must come to an end. Hospitals aren’t broke. The healthcare accountability system is. And if we want to make the most impact, investments must be moved from the bottom line to the frontline.”

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