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HEU Braces for Damage Decisions

The B.C. Supreme Court, conservative advocates, and a Campbell River mill are mulling how much to charge the HEU for staying out.

Quentin Dodd 17 May
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While life has returned to normal in hospitals, the financial cost of the Health Employees' Union dispute to B.C. labour has yet to be reckoned. Hospital employers, a conservative advocacy group, and a mill owner are separately seeking claimed damages from unions whose members defied a Labour Relations Board back to work order.Labour could face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and awards to plaintiffs, depending on how cases play out.A B.C. Supreme Court judge will decide June 11 what penalties should be paid by the HEU for conducting an illegal province-wide walkout. The Health Employers Association of B.C. says the strike cost health authorities $6 million, but HEU officials claim nearly all of that was offset by savings in wages.The HEABC didn't suggest to the court a penalty for the HEU. The HEU's lawyers have argued fines should run no higher than $50,000.On two other fronts, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and Norske Skog corporation are planning to seek damages resulting from the job action.Canadian Taxpayers' Federation: Class-action suit?With an early May radio advertising blitz vowing "it's time for a big reality check at the Hospital Employees' Union," the Canadian Taxpayers Federation attempted to drum up plaintiffs to add to a class-action legal suit against the union.As a result of the campaign, "we probably had 100 individuals contact us with their stories," said CTF Provincial Director Sara MacIntyre. Her group is "looking at those individuals whose diagnostic procedures and surgeries were cancelled when the strike became illegal after government passed legislation," says MacIntyre.The CTF, a not-for-profit advocacy group that presses for cutting taxes and dismantling government initiatives including the Kyoto Accord, has contracted the law firm of Crease, Harmon and Co. to handle the suit if it goes ahead. "Technically, all you need is two individuals," says MacIntyre, "and of course, what our legal counsel suggests is that once you have the suit certified by the court, you'll see a number of individuals getting in touch."Such suits can take years to wend their way through the courts. MacIntyre offered no estimate of the amount of damages the suit might seek. "We are not looking for big financial compensation on behalf of claimants," she said. "It's a statement of principle. If you don't agree [with government] then you can vote differently, but if you don't agree with HEU, you have no recourse as a taxpayer."Norske Skog: 'Planning to seek damages'A private pulp and paper company in Campbell River has repeated a promise to go ahead with action to recover damages from pickets who shut its production.Norske Skog's Elk Falls Mill was picketed on two occasions in the dying hours of the HEU dispute. As increasing numbers of union members and supporters urged an all-out province-wide stoppage, two picket lines formed at the mill by a dozen or so people for around two hours Saturday morning, and again in the evening.The mill employs about 1,150 people, about 860 of them unionized in locals of the Communications, Energy and Paper workers union. Some of the pickets told The Tyee they belonged to other, public sector unions.After the evening picket line formed noisily around the entrance to the mill, management shut down equipment and suspended production for about 12 hours.A senior union official later suggested the shutdown wasn't necessary. But Norske spokesperson Jennifer Patrick said her company had sought injunctions against the HEU and considered it responsible for the picket action."We are planning to seek damages, because we have an obligation to seek recovery of costs from lost production," said Patrick, who was not able to estimate the amount of lost production due to the picket line. "We regret being forced to take these steps," she added, "but we're trying to protect our unions against lost wages."Pickets photographedThe morning's shift change was delayed for three to five hours by union members refusing to cross the lines and overtime had to be paid, said acting mill manager Carlo Dalmonte. He said company personnel took pictures of the pickets that morning, noted car licence plate numbers, and would be seeking repayment of lost money, as much as $1,500 per person who picketed .On the day of picketing, participants told The Tyee they were there to signal anger at the government. "This is a good employer," said a woman, gesturing towards the steaming mill. "I'm told they're a good company and have a good working relationship with their union. But we have to give them the message." "I'm sick over this," said the woman, who acknowledged belonging to a public sector union without naming it, and asked not to be identified. "I am truly sick about it, but we have to do it. It's the only way."'Nobody condoned action'Dalmonte said the mill's management enjoys good relations with CEP 1123. "It's very frustrating for us to have any outside group strike us, when we feel we have a model corporate-union relationship."CEP President Dennis Webber said while many of his members personally backed the HEU, and union policy forbids crossing a picket line, his union did not actively encourage the picketing. "As far as I know, nobody condoned the action at the mill," he said. "Although we're very supportive of the HEU, we do have a collective agreement with Norske and we respect that.""It was very good to see there was a lot of support for the HEU," he said, adding that he was particularly glad to see support for HEU in Campbell River from the International Woodworkers Association of Canada, which has been in a standoff with HEU over an incursion into HEU traditional health-care territory by the IWA.Regarding the penalties that may be levied by the B.C. Supreme Court, the HEU has argued that it made every effort to get workers back on the job once it was found in contempt and tried to provide essential services throughout the action, which was non-violent.Outside the court on Monday of this week, HEU leader Chris Allnut termed any fine over $10,000 "significant." He added, "There's no question that's money we would like to use for other purposes."Quentin Dodd is a Campbell River-based frequent contributor to The Tyee. Natasha Barsotti contributed files to this report.  [Tyee]

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