Thursday, March 18, 2010

Saskatchewan Health briefing note biased in favour of SAHO in contract talks with health care provider unions

The province’s health care provider unions have their work cut out for them in trying to secure new collective agreements.

Not only do they have to deal with the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO) – representing health-care employers – and its political master, the anti-worker Saskatchewan Party government. They now have to contend with what appears to be pro-SAHO reporting by Health Ministry bureaucrats.

At issue is a briefing note prepared by the ministry’s policy and planning branch on December 2, 2009, entitled: SAHO proposes the introduction of a conciliator in health provider bargaining. The document is blatantly one sided, often casting the unions in a negative light, and makes little attempt to present a balanced view.

The two-page record was obtained through a freedom of information request made January 29, 2010, for copies of any briefing notes since October 1, 2009, regarding the contract negotiations between SAHO and the health care provider unions (CUPE, SEIU, and SGEU).

The ministry responded March 5, 2010, disclosing two records totaling three pages. In a subsequent email the ministry advised that an additional 8 records totaling 17 pages were being withheld in their entirety. In other words, the Wall government is refusing to release them.

The December 2 briefing note provides a timeline of significant collective bargaining events beginning on September 22, 2009, with SAHO’s tabling of an initial monetary offer to the provider unions at a common table “that contained market adjustments for specific classifications and a general wage increase totaling 9.25% over four years.”

Ministry officials neglected to mention that, according to a CUPE Health Care Council bargaining update (#16), when CUPE, SEIU and SGEU representatives met with SAHO’s chief negotiator to receive the initial monetary proposal they were told it was “all or nothing.”

Furthermore, the monetary offer was “tied to accepting the Employers’ concessions including multi-site work, limitations on bumping, making you pay for their mistakes, disabled workers losing rights to re-employment, elimination of 3rd weekend overtime payments and major concessions to home care workers.” [CUPE Health Care Council Bargaining Update #16 – September 22/09]

The briefing note states that on October 16, 2009, SAHO tabled “a second comprehensive package proposal” which included all of the proposals in the initial offer, as well as additional market adjustments for specific classifications.

The ministry failed to acknowledge that, according to the CUPE Health Care Council, SAHO refused “to discuss other monetary issues in our package without our agreement on take-aways. In other words, SAHO is insisting that we sell the house, but they won’t tell us the purchase price.”

The union coalition provided SAHO with a proposal document which included all bargaining proposals that are common to the three provider unions. However, “SAHO flatly rejected this package on [October 16] and tabled a revised “all or nothing” package that made very minor progress by expanding the classifications for market adjustments.” [CUPE Health Care Council Bargaining Update #17 – October 16/09]

The briefing note states that on October 30, 2009, CUPE requested that SAHO drop all items in exchange for CUPE doing the same. SAHO refused this offer as it created significant risk for the employer and would not support reaching a collective agreement with all of the provider unions.

What CUPE made was an offer, not a demand or a request. This offer was made on October 28, not the 30th. SAHO considered the proposal, which included both sides proceeding to the coalition table, for less than two-days before rejecting it. [CUPE Health Care Council Bargaining Update #18 – October 30/09]

The briefing note states that on November 4, 2009, SAHO sent a written request to the provider unions seeking confirmation of additional common table dates. A response was not received until November 13, 2009.

Yes, so? Those nine days are nothing compared to the near 18 months of stalling that the health care provider unions had to endure after their collective agreements expired before SAHO finally tabled an initial monetary offer on September 22, 2009. During those months SAHO repeatedly refused requests by the unions to move to a common table.

The briefing note states that the provider unions rejected the employer’s most recent proposal on November 26, 2009, and “tabled a counter-offer with SAHO the following day. The counter-offer included a general wage increase of 5% per year over 3 years.”

The counter-offer submitted by the unions was “an initial monetary proposal,” not a final offer. It was presented “in addition” to the tri-union’s October 16 proposal, which includes parity issues, market adjustments and retention/recruitment initiatives among other items.

It should be noted that the unions requested data from SAHO so as to enable them to make a further proposal in respect to market adjustments. “[SAHO] refused to share their research data – therefore we are required to do our own,” a coalition communiqué said. [Coalition Bargaining Communiqué #1, November 26, 2009]

The unions issued another communiqué the following day indicating that on November 26, “SAHO returned to the table at 2:35 p.m. and provided an amendment to their October 16 proposal document. The single change to SAHO’s initial general wage increase offer is a meager 0.15% increase in the fourth year only. Their document included certain amendments to each Union in respect to individual language related issues and primarily in respect to their ‘rollbacks’.”

The unions asked SAHO to deliver the following message to the Saskatchewan Party government: ‘How is it that patients will come first when you continue to put health care providers last?’

SAHO provided a response the following day. The lead negotiator said, “Our proposal is not about valuing our employees”. [Coalition Bargaining Communique #2, November 27, 2009]

Ministry officials included none of this important information in the briefing note.

The briefing note states: “On December 1, 2009, the unions launched advertising that significantly misrepresented comments made by the employers’ negotiating committee. This move raised concerns by SAHO that the unions would continue to mislead the public, and in doing so hinder efforts to reach a collective agreement.”

It would appear that the Health Ministry obtained this information from SAHO’s Dec. 1 news release.

Neither SAHO’s news release nor the ministry’s briefing note explains how the unions “significantly misrepresented” comments made by the employers’ negotiating committee.

The union coalition issued a communiqué on December 1, 2009, that states, in part:

“The three Health Provider Unions attempted to meet with representatives of SAHO, the Regional Health Authorities and the Government on December 1 in Saskatoon. At 10:50 a.m. SAHO advised the Unions that they will no longer meet face-to-face with the Union Committee. SAHO was upset about our newspaper ad in the December 1 edition of both the Star-Phoenix and the Leader-Post. SAHO stated that they will be requesting the services of a conciliator and that the Unions would be receiving a copy of their letter of request. At this point, they left the room.

“It would appear that SAHO has abandoned the bargaining process. SAHO alleges that the Unions lack integrity – because the Unions used a direct quote from the SAHO lead negotiator in our newspaper ad. When challenged with the truth – SAHO chose to walk away from the process.

“We were not given an opportunity to respond to the SAHO allegations.” [Coalition Bargaining Communiqué #3, December 1, 2009]

The parties had only met eight times (about four hours in face to face discussions) at a common bargaining table to discuss monetary issues before SAHO pulled the plug and walked away. [Tri-union news release, December 2, 2009]

Naturally, the majority of this information never made it into the briefing note. The same goes for any discussion about the radio and newspaper ads that SAHO had been running up to that point.

Briefing notes are meant to inform a decision maker about an issue. It’s reasonable to expect that they be accurate and include both sides of the debate, which in this case didn’t happen. The document prepared by the Health Ministry seems heavily biased in favour of SAHO. And this is only one briefing note. How many more are out there just like it?

Health care provider unions ad, StarPhoenix, Dec. 1, 2009, p. A4


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