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Players Sift Through Ruling's Fallout

Looking for answers one week after the overturn of Bill 29.

Francis Plourde and Sunny Freeman 14 Jun

Sunny Freeman and Francis Plourde are on staff at The Tyee.

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One week after Canada’s highest court caught the B.C. government off guard and secured a landmark victory for Canadian unions, the political players in the Bill 29 chess game are continuing to react and strategize their next moves.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last Friday that three sections of Bill 29 -- the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act -- infringed worker’s rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Since then, provincial organizations from the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union to the Business Council of B.C. as well as politicians, pundits and affected workers have been stuck in political limbo, struggling to asses the impact of the ruling for citizens from caregivers to consumers.

The HEU expects over 8000[*] workers who lost their jobs under the cost cutting bill to be compensated or rehired and is calling for a moratorium on layoffs.

Experts, meanwhile, say the ruling could drain anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion from Finance Minister Carole Taylor’s budget.

But while the unions hailed the decision as a “tremendous victory,” the province has not taken it as a warning to stop “flexibility” measures to combat rising health care costs in the province.

Provincial officials did not say this week whether they would honour the union’s demands, instead choosing vague politico speak to diffuse the situation while they plot their next move.

“We have an obligation to listen to what the Supreme Court has said and to act appropriately with regard to that," Premier Gordon Campbell told the media. He added that the government planned to take the full year granted by the court to address the issue.

Meanwhile, health care workers affected by the deal reacted with cautious optimism to the ruling.

“The judgment was well received, There was a bit of a celebration, but for us, it’s not over. We still have to fight to regain our jobs,” said Chris Martin, the chairperson of the Nanaimo Seniors Village Hospital Employees' Union Local and a care aide at the facility.

Martin and 168 other Nanaimo health care employees suffered the effects of Bill 29 more than once. As the Tyee’s Tom Sandborn reported, they recently learned they would be out of a job in September and forced to re-apply for the same work.

They’ve been fired and rehired three times since the implementation of the bill. Their wages dropped to $16.50[*] from $20.74 an hour during the same period.

“Nothing has changed in Nanaimo. They’re still facing lay-off. The company hasn’t changed their position,” said Mike Old, director of communication for the Hospital Employees' Union. “Everybody is still evaluating what are the consequences,” he added.

While B.C. denizens make wild calculations and speculations about healthcare and the provincial purse, the rest of the provinces are trying to understand the future of labor relations across Canada.

A groundbreaking piece of the judgment overturned several previous rulings stating that the Charter did not recognize the right to collective bargaining. “The protection enshrined in s. 2(d) of the Charter may properly be seen as the culmination of a historical movement towards the recognition of a procedural right to collective bargaining,” it reads.

One legal expert told the Toronto Star that the judgment could even affect a government's ability to legislate striking public sector employees back to work.

Meanwhile, back in B.C., the HEU is calling on the government to sit down with them as soon as possible to determine how to proceed, but the province says it will take several weeks to formulate a response before meeting with the union.

And why not? It has a full year to make its next move while pundits patients and the provinces try to navigate the new game board of labour relations in Canada.

*On June 18, 2007, we corrected the number workers who the HEU expects to be compensated (in this line).
*On June 18, 2007, we corrected the amount HEU worker wages dropped (in this line).  [Tyee]

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