Those advertisements on Vancouver bus shelters saying "LPN + RN" probably don't mean much to you unless you work as either a licensed practical nurse or a registered nurse in British Columbia. But the ad campaign signals a struggle over union membership that has sparked anger, disciplinary actions and a fast approaching showdown date within B.C.'s labour movement.
The B.C. Nurses Union, which represents thousands of registered nurses (RNs) and is trying to attract licensed practical nurses (LPNs) usually represented by the Hospital Employees Union, stands accused of inter-union "raiding" that threatens solidarity in the province's embattled health care sector.
As punishment, national and provincial trade union umbrella groups have suspended the BCNU from membership activities this summer.
But so far the BCNU's leaders have not backed down, setting Thursday Sept. 10 as the date when they will take stock of how many LPNs they have signed up as "associate members" and whether to formally induct them into the BCN.
That is a step that Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti is already on the record opposing. He sent a letter on July 30 to Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, asking the Federation to intervene and direct its B.C. member, the BCNU, to cease activity that Georgetti characterized as a raid on other CLC affiliated unions.
Flurry of disciplines, BCNU unrepentant
The BCNU responded with a press release on July 31, in which the union's president Debra McPherson says:
"The B.C. Nurses' Union is disappointed that the Canadian Labour Congress has chosen to try and ban BCNU members from joint labour activities, rather than defend the rights of workers, including nurses, to choose their own representatives."
Georgetti declined to speak with the Tyee for this story. A media spokesperson for the CLC told the Tyee that the matter is being dealt with internally and Georgetti had no comment at this time.
Mark Thompson, professor emeritus at UBC's Sauder business school, told the Tyee that "one of the things you get out of belonging to the CLC is protection from other unions."
On Aug. 5, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions' Linda Silas wrote to BCNU president Debra McPherson, directing her to "uphold both the CLC and CFNU constitutions by ceasing immediately your actions that are found to be raiding under the CLC constitution as per the ruling of CLC president Ken Georgetti, July 30th, 2009."
On August 7, the B.C. Federation of Labour announced its parallel action in a letter that suspended BCNU from participating in B.C. Fed activity and local labour councils. The Fed letter, signed by President Jim Sinclair and Secretary-Treasurer Angela Schira, took a stern tone, saying, in part:
"In the past few weeks, the B.C. government has announced another round of devastating cuts to funding for public health care. It is a critical time in B.C. -- a time when health care unions and all unions need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to defend our high-quality public health care system.
"The BCNU's current effort to raid the membership of other health care unions in B.C. plays directly into the hands of the B.C. government. This division hurts not only our movement, but ultimately patients who will suffer as the B.C. government cuts health programs and staff that are critical to patient care."
Bus shelter ads and video campaign
A Fed media spokesperson told The Tyee that the BCNU had not yet responded to a suggestion in the Aug. 7 letter that the nurses' union leadership meet with B.C. Fed officers to try to resolve the conflict. The same email forwarded a comment from Jim Sinclair, who said:
"The constitution of the labour movement is very clear. We build our movement by putting resources, time and energy into organizing workers who are without a union, not by taking workers who are already in unions."
On September 3, David Rice, Director of the CLC's Pacific Region offices in Vancouver, told the Tyee that to his knowledge the BCNU had not responded to CLC correspondence either.
"I am not aware of any move by the BCNU to comply with the president's directive," Rice said in a telephone interview.
The CLC and B.C. Fed reprimands and directive from the Canadian Federation of Nurses' Unions came as the B.C. Nurses Union was in the process of mounting a full tilt effort to persuade licensed practical nurses and other health care workers in the province to leave their current unions and join the BCNU. LPNs in particular were being invited to sign up for an Associate Membership program which is being actively promoted on the BCNU website and through large bus shelter ads like the one illustrating this story.
A source in one of the targeted unions estimated that the BCNU bus shelter ads alone cost the union over $100,000.00. In a video addressed to LPNs in B.C. posted on the Nurses Union website, president McPherson says that if enough LPNs sign up as associate members by September 10, her union will take steps to formally organize them into the BCNU. She says that large numbers of LPNs have already approached the BCNU and urges all her viewers to join her union.
"By being in the same union, we can learn together and build strong nursing practices. The union belongs to its members. Members are not the property of their unions. Employee groups have the right to join the union they choose," McPherson says in the video.
HEU accuses BCNU of 'unprovoked attack'
The CLC’s Dave Rice is cautious towards the argument being advanced by McPherson.
"I am concerned to hear the BCNU use the phrase 'Employee groups have the right to join the union they choose'. This ignores the need for majority votes and democracy." Rice said the BCNU was mirroring arguments made by right-to-work legislation supporters like Phil Hochstein, who speaks out often against unions as head of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of BC.
Judy Darcy, Secretary and Business Manager for the HEU, is also critical of the arguments that McPherson makes in her campaign video. Darcy said that the BCNU campaign was an "unprovoked attack" on her union.
"BCNU has historically opposed an expanded role for LPNs in health care," she told The Tyee. "This raid is an attempt to slow the professional recognition of LPNs. The BCNU has been on the record for years opposing LPNs even being called nurses. LPNs ask me why this sudden interest in us from the BCNU? They conclude it is about control."
Darcy said the BCNU was present at CLC meetings where the rules now being invoked against them were adopted, and have supported sanctions against other unions for raiding.
"These rules against raiding are about solidarity, not about treating members as property," she said. "Debra McPherson can say that what she's doing isn't a raid, but the CLC and the B.C. Fed both see it as a raid. Perhaps even more telling, the BCNU's national organization says it is raiding in B.C. and has directed it to stop. But you won't find that on the BCNU’s website."
Health worker 'raiding' in BC
Darcy says the BCNU has isolated itself from other unions and from its own national organization. She notes that she expects HEU to be at the bargaining table with employers soon, and promises her union will fight for gains for LPNs.
"We won big gains for LPNs in our last bargaining sessions," she said, "including salary gains of 15 per cent when our general membership won gains of 8.5 per cent. And those special gains were supported by all our members. We need unity as we go into bargaining this year. For BCNU to launch this campaign at this time doesn't benefit LPNs at all. It undermines trust and unity."
This is not the first time the issue of raiding for hospital workers has been contentious in the B.C. labour movement. In 2003, the BCNU issued a statement saying unequivocally that it would not raid the HEU.
"In addition all members of the B.C. Federation of Labour have agreed not to carry out raids on other members of the Federation. BCNU, as a member of the Federation, would not raid HEU."
In March of 2004 the CLC imposed sanctions on the Industrial Wood and Allied Workers (IWA) for signing up hospital workers whose HEU-organized jobs had been privatized out of existence by the Campbell Liberals.
At the time of this dispute, the BCNU and its president Debra McPherson called strongly for sanctions against the IWA, notes Georgetti in his recent letter to the Federation of Nurses Unions.
And in June of 2004, BCNU representatives met with provincial labour ministry officials to argue that LPNs should be transferred into the nurses' union, an action which led to a complaint from the Hospital Employees Union and the BC Government Employees Union being filed against BCNU with the Canadian Labour Congress.
BCNU not raiding: McPherson
In a phone interview on September 4, McPherson told the Tyee that she does not consider what her union has done so far as a raid on the HEU or any other union.
"If we start signing up membership cards and go to the LRB, that, I guess, would be a raid. We recognize that our decisions have consequences, but we think workers have a right to choose their own union. The ball is in the CLC and Fed's court about what they decide to do next. My understanding is that there are three levels of possible sanction and we are currently at the first level," she said.
McPherson refused say how many associate members her union had signed up among LPNs to date, or to speculate about what would happen past the September 10 deadline she had set for LPNs to join her union as associate members. She did say, however, that the response by HEU members to the associate membership drive had been "overwhelming, with strong interest being expressed."
HEU currently represents the bulk of unionized LPNs in B.C., over 6,000 of them. But smaller units of these health care workers are represented by BCGEU. In addition to these two unions, CUPE B.C., the UFCW and the International Union of Operating Engineers all identified themselves as targets of the BCNU raiding activity in an open letter to nurses distributed in June of this year.
'We're a long way from headquarters'
UBC's Mark Thompson sees the current dispute about raiding in a long historical perspective. He said raids between unions have been more frequent in B.C. than in most other Canadian jurisdictions, often featuring Canadian based unions raiding U.S. controlled internationals.
"In B.C.," he said, "raiding is fairly easy. We're a long way from headquarters out here."
Thompson said that work is being re-organized in B.C. hospitals, with work formerly limited to registered nurses now being done by LPNs. He speculated that this change might lie behind the BCNU's interest in organizing LPNs now. He emphasized that in the long run the decision on who represents LPNs is not up to the unions, but will be decided by the province's Labour Relations Board.
"The LRB has the power to amend bargaining units. The CLC is in the position of defending the status quo here," Thompson said. "In the end, if workers want to move to another union, they will vote with their feet."
However the issue is decided, Marjorie Griffin Cohen thinks the BCNU is making a mistake in its efforts to lure members from other unions. Cohen, who teaches Women's Studies at SFU and has written widely on the Canadian economy, public policy, women, labour, and international trade agreements, says that the BCNU raid represents a misuse of union money.
"This is a terrible move," Cohen told the Tyee, "really shocking. With so many Canadian women outside of unions, the money could be better spent organizing workers who don't have a union. I don't know if the BCNU will bargain as hard for the LPNs as they do for registered nurses. I am so sorry to see this. We should not be fighting over members who are already unionized. It is so costly. This money could be better spent on organizing the unorganized."