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Health Minister keeps hands off paramedic strike

VANCOUVER – Provincial Health Services Minister Kevin Falcon has refused a union request to intervene in the 86-day-old paramedic strike and force arbitration between the BC Ambulance Service and CUPE 873.

“I’m not going to interfere in this dispute between the BCAS and the paramedics’ union,” Falcon said in a written statement provided to The Tyee.

“I firmly believe that there is no reason the two sides can't return to discussions and reach a fair agreement that addresses paramedics concerns, while recognizing the economic challenges we face in government,” he said.

The union requested arbitration and a meeting with the minister after two days of talks broke down last week. No further negotiations have been scheduled.

The union says it is confident in its offer and only wants a fair method to resolve the dispute.

“We have no problem putting our offer before someone truly independent of the union and truly independent of the government,” said CUPE 873 Director of Public Education BJ Chute.

The union’s contract demands include faster response times and increased staffing levels, but monetary issues and contract length have proven to be the biggest barriers to reaching a collective agreement.

The union’s latest offer was a three-year contract with a three-per-cent wage increase in the first year, followed by five-per-cent-hikes for the remaining two years.

The BC Ambulance Service presented a counter-offer of a one-year contract with a three-per-cent increase.

“They quite insultingly put forward an offer that was about $13 million less than the offer that put us on strike in the first place,” said Chute.

A spokesperson for the BCAS said no one was available for comment yesterday, however an updated release about the negotiations was provided.

“Provincial government ministries and health authorities are facing significant budget pressures and BCAS must balance the desire to be fair and reasonable with the current economic challenges,” said the statement dated June 24.

Union officials continue to tour the province this week to consult with members about further strike actions.

“We’re meeting with paramedics around the province and many paramedics feel that we should be escalating the strike action,” said Chute.

However, he said feedback has been diverse, ranging from limited desire to accept the employer’s current offer all the way to a complete withdrawal of services.

The paramedics are governed by an Essential Services Order, which requires the maintenance of regular service levels and severely limits possible strike actions. Paramedics disobeying the order could be found in contempt of court.

At this point, union officials are encouraging paramedics to follow the order.

“We’ve been telling them every way that we can that they should obey the law,” said CUPE 873 President John Strohmaier.

But the union executive will consider its options after the consultation tour has finished, he said.

“My members are frustrated and they are not going to wait for this to simply run its course,” said Strohmaier. “The fact that they’re considering things that would border on illegal I think should be of extreme concern to the Minister,” he said.

Falcon had his own criticism of Strohaimer in an apparent response to the union president's statement that the strike "could place the BC Ambulance Service and the patients it serves at extreme risk.”

“I am hopeful he would not recommend his membership actively breaks the law by defying the essential services order,” Falcon said.

“It is even more disappointing to hear the union threatening to place patients at extreme risk by breaking the essential services order to try and manipulate the outcome of negotiations.”

Strohmaier responded by saying the minister himself would be negligent if the strike continues much longer and he doesn’t intervene.

“He seems to be heading down a path of confrontation,” Strohmaier said.

“I guess this will set the tone for Minister Falcon’s tenure as the Minister of Health.”

Garrett Zehr reports for The Tyee.

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