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Union Turf Fight over Licensed Practical Nurses

Two health worker unions file complaint against BC Nurses' Union.

By Andrew MacLeod 26 Mar 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Blood pressure rises for labour groups vying to represent nurses.

The unions representing many British Columbia health care workers say they have complained to the Canadian Labour Congress about the B.C. Nurses' Union signing up their members.

Acknowledgement of the complaint comes nine days after the BCNU finished negotiating a contract extension with the provincial government that drew criticism for "secret pre-election dealings" from another union.

"Yes, we have sent a letter," said Mike Old, a spokesperson for the Hospital Employees' Union. The letter was sent through the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the National Union of Public and General Employees, which respectively represent the HEU and B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union nationally, he said.

"The BCNU is attempting to sign up Licensed Practical Nurses who are members of our unions, the HEU and BCGEU," Old said. The HEU has been aware of the BCNU's actions for a few months, he said, though the union is unsure when it started.

The BCNU has told its members it wants to represent more healthcare workers, including LPNs, said Mary Rowles, a spokesperson for the BCGEU. "It's a bold and ambitious plan," she said. "I can see a few obstacles, like that most of them are already in unions."

The BCGEU represents a few hundred health care workers, she said, while the Hospital Employees' Union represents thousands. "These members are quite well represented," she said. "Sectoral bargaining has worked well. Having all the LPNs in the BCNU doesn't achieve any efficiencies."

Rowles and Old each said the letter sent to the CLC is confidential and neither could provide a copy.

A spokesperson for the BCNU, Art Moses, said he had not yet seen the substance of the complaint. "I don't think we're prepared to get into it in the media at this moment."

Contract extension

The BCNU insisted a negotiated contract extension announced last week that gives members a six per cent raise over two years is unrelated to plans to represent Licensed Practical Nurses.

There is, however, plenty of evidence the BCNU would like to represent LPNs and other healthcare workers.

The BCNU's magazine for members, BCNU Update, set out a strategic direction in its December 2008 issue that included, "Grow and represent all healthcare workers in B.C., through a larger, knowledgeable, more engaged, activist, diverse membership."

An internal BCNU document obtained by The Tyee provides more detail: "As a means of increasing BCNU's influence as the professional voice of nurses, BCNU could offer associate membership in the union to those in the family of nursing who are not BCNU members."

While the document does not specify who is included in the "family of nursing," it does say they could bring in "nurses from all nursing categories," and the benefits the BCNU could offer include "assistance with regulatory and licensing bodies like the College of Licensed Practical Nurses and the [College of Registered Nurses of B.C.]."

Growth would be good for the BCNU, it said. "Our ability to reach out to other members of the nursing community by offering associate membership may be critical in ensuring BCNU is seen by key decision-makers as the professional nursing voice in health care."

Earlier raiding complaint

The BCNU has previously attempted to expand who it represents, angering other unions. In 2004, BCNU efforts to gain the right to bargain for LPNs resulted in a raiding complaint filed with the Canadian Labour Congress.

After the matter was resolved, a BCNU press release quoted a letter written on the union's behalf that "noted that BCNU Council continues to support having LPNs, RPNs, and RNs in the same bargaining association."

The Health Authorities Act divides the health sector into five "appropriate bargaining units." Nurses are one of the units, but the law defines a "nurse" as either a registered nurse or a registered psychiatric nurse.

LPNs are included in the health services and support bargaining units. The HEU represents LPNs working in facilities and the BCGEU represents LPNs working in the community.

'Secretive pre-election dealings'

On March 16, the BCNU told its members it had negotiated a two-year extension to its contract with the provincial government. The contract was not set to expire until March 2010. The extension takes it to 2011 with a three per cent "labour market adjustment" each year. A ratification vote is set for April 8.

The agreement also allows for a new Joint Quality of Worklife Committee with members from the government and the union to address "key nursing practice and patient care issues."

The Hospital Employees' Union criticized the BCNU's negotiation with the government in a March 16 bulletin to HEU members and noted that the Health Sciences Association may get a similar contract extension.

"Hospital Employees' Union secretary-business manager Judy Darcy says government's secretive pre-election dealings with some health unions is in stark contrast to the transparent and coordinated bargaining approach established by former finance minister Carole Taylor in 2006," the HEU bulletin said.

The B.C. Liberals had much to gain signing a deal with the BCNU so close to the election, said University of Victoria political science professor Dennis Pilon. They get to appear as problem solvers, he said, while creating division among supporters of their opponents. "The Liberals understand organized labour's relationship with the NDP is uneven."

"It's a classic kind of labour strategy," Pilon said. "It's essentially trying to isolate the different players. Divide and rule."

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