Wall gov’t, not SAHO, calling the shots on wage offer to health care provider unions
For months now the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO) have been trying to sell the public on the notion that it is calling the shots in the current contract talks with the province’s three health care provider unions.
But a series of briefing notes recently obtained from Saskatchewan Health through an access to information request seem to show that it is just an illusion.
On January 27, 2010, SAHO – which represents more than 40 health care employers in the province – tabled what it called “its final offer to the provider group of unions (CUPE, SEIU-West and SGEU), and requested that the unions take the offer to their membership for a vote.”
According to a news release, the offer is a four year contract including general wage increases of 4% – 2% – 1.5% – and 2%, maintaining market competitive wages relative to western Canadian provinces; retroactive pay of about 10% for the period April 1, 2008 to the present. Accumulation of retroactive pay ends on March 31, 2010; and market adjusted rates for specific classifications to address market related recruitment and retention concerns.
The unions understandably turned the offer down. They had presented a new offer of settlement only six days earlier and were expecting a response to that, the employers instead produced a final offer.
The unions have been without a contract since March 31, 2008.
SAHO issued a news release on May 3, 2010, saying it had provided the unions with an addendum to the final offer to clarify the intent of the language proposals in the final offer, and application of the proposals in the work place. In some cases the language has been changed or withdrawn to respond to concerns raised. The retro pay and general wage increase, however, remained unchanged with SAHO insisting “the final offer and addendum provide competitive wages for similar work in the western Canadian health care sector.”
In an op-ed piece published July 22, 2010, in the Leader-Post, SAHO CEO Susan Antosh reiterated that its final offer “reflects our goal of providing employees with competitive wages based on comparable markets in western
It’s debatable if SAHO ever had a choice.
In a briefing note dated February 3, 2010, updating the collective bargaining process, Health Ministry officials give the clearest picture yet of who is really in charge.
While “SAHO is responsible for collective bargaining with the provider unions on behalf of the employer,” it is the provincial government that “is committed to providing competitive wages in comparable western Canadian markets,” the document states.
It seems the final offer was the Wall governments, SAHO only tabled it. The alleged non-profit, non-government association of health agencies appears to be little more than a political buffer doing the government’s bidding.
The February 3 briefing note also shows the Health Ministry continuing its long running bias against the health care provider unions, using language that puts them in a negative light.
“On January 18, 2010 the provider unions tabled a counter-offer with the conciliator that failed to demonstrate substantial movement,” the document states. Meanwhile, SAHO could do no wrong: “Despite best efforts on the part of SAHO, a large gap existed between the SAHO offer and the union demands.”
A briefing note updating the negotiations to March 8, 2010, appears to reveal Health Ministry officials hoping that the retroactive pay provision in the “final offer” creates division among union members.
“The offer is time sensitive as retroactive pay will stop accruing after March 31, 2010,” the document states. “There may be mounting pressure on the part of the provider union membership to resolve this matter before April 1, 2010 to ensure no loss in pay.”
It’s interesting to note that the reference to “mounting pressure” was removed from a subsequent briefing note dated April 6, 2010.
In a May 12, 2010, briefing note the Wall government again bad mouth the unions saying they “continue to refuse” to take the current offer to their membership for a vote, and without providing any evidence, claim there is discontent.
“We are hearing from some of their members that they want a chance to vote,” it says.
If the provincial government is indeed receiving that type of feedback from union members, it must be few and far between because it’s not being reported in the media, which you can be darn sure would be broadcasting it loudly if it were true.
A common message throughout the briefing notes is that it’s the government’s desire to see the collective bargaining process work effectively, and to that end it would not be appropriate for the minister “to become directly involved in the negotiations.”
Health Minister Don McMorris doesn’t need to be at the bargaining table to be involved in negotiations. As evidenced by the heavily censored briefing notes, he and his cabinet colleagues are the silent partners pulling the strings behind the scenes.
In fact, one of the briefing notes that were released has been blacked out entirely. Apparently, even the date and title of the two-page document is too sensitive to disclose. One of the reasons the Health Ministry give for severing the information is that it pertains to executive council. The provincial cabinet is involved up to its neck.
McMorris put himself on the firing line recently when he responded to a postcard campaign by sending a letter to health care workers tub thumping “the four-year contract offer proposed by SAHO,” and scaring them with details about the deadline for accruing retroactive pay.
“It is our view that the unions should give the final offer serious consideration and allow their members to vote on the contract,” McMorris said in the June 1, 2010, letter.
“It is important to note that as of April 1, 2010, retroactive pay no longer accrues. What this means is that on ratification of an agreement, union members will receive retroactive pay up to March 31, 2010, only.”
But when a Leader-Post reporter attempted to contact McMorris for comment they were directed to SAHO CEO Susan Antosh. [Health-care workers invite McMorris to talk (Leader-Post, June 18, 2010)]
In mid-July, SAHO inflamed the situation further when it bypassed union leaders and sent a letter directly to health care workers’ homes warning them that the final offer “will not increase” and that because retroactive pay ceased to accumulate effective April 1, 2010, they were “now working for 7.5% less than you would have been receiving had the agreement been ratified by March 31, 2010.”
“We think employees should have the opportunity to vote on the final offer and addendum. We encourage you to voice your opinions to your union,” the letter states.
The letter was signed by Susan Antosh on behalf of Saskatchewan Health Regions, but did not identify her as SAHO’s president and CEO.
On July 14, 2010, an email was sent to SAHO’s director of member relations, Marj Gavigan, asking was the letter sent to union members’ homes at the request of the employer, and, how did SAHO obtain the union members’ home addresses?
Gavigan replied the next day: “Employers have the home addresses of all employees and provided authorization for SAHO to access the data to send the letters. SAHO, as the employer representative in collective bargaining, facilitated the production and distribution of the letters.” It’s still unclear, though, who requested that the letters be mailed to workers’ homes.
According to the StarPhoenix, this was the first time SAHO had ever sent a letter to union members’ homes.
Gavigan told the newspaper the intent of the letter was to provide information that SAHO was concerned wasn’t being communicated to employees.
Barb Cape, president of the Service Employees International Union-West (SEIU), which represents health-care workers in the Saskatoon Health Region, said since the letter went out they have received numerous phone calls and emails from members who were upset the letter went directly to their homes.
“They feel the purpose of the letter was not to share information but to harass, to intimidate.” [
She has a point. With all the news stories, radio and newspaper ads, posters, news releases and communiqués, not to mention word of mouth, it’s hard to believe SAHO’s reason for sending the letter out.
In an op-ed piece published July 22, 2010, in the Leader-Post, health care provider union representatives Gordon Campbell (CUPE Health Care Council), Barb Cape (SEIU-West) and Bonnie Erickson (SGEU vice-president) noted the unions’ offer would cost the government less than 13% over a four year term compared to the 37% settlement with the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN).
“We have agreed to SAHO’s proposed general wage increase of 9.5%,” they explained.
“Health-care workers do not want SAHO’s offer because it is tied to major concessions to their rights. These concessions, if implemented, would undermine the quality of health-care services and worsen staff shortages in a growing number of health-care classifications. Health-care workers rejected these concessions in 2009 when they voted in favour of job action and rejected them again in 2010 at hundreds of membership meetings.”
SAHO’s position on retroactive pay makes its final offer increasingly less attractive, as well.
“Why would anyone care to vote for an offer that robs them of retroactive wages?”
Yes, why indeed.
Another bone of contention is SAHO spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on an advertising campaign to promote its final offer and addendum.
“SAHO has engaged in advertising since we tabled the final offer to the provider group in January in order to correct misinformation that was circulating regarding the details of the final offer,” Antosh said in an email on June 23, 2010, in response to a request for information.
“An ad campaign ran in February, and material was distributed to health care workplaces at that time. A second ad campaign ran in May when the addendum to the final offer was presented to the unions.
“The approximate costs of the radio, print and poster material for these campaigns as of May 31, 2010 is $210,450.00.”
Antosh said later the cost of the advertising campaign was charged to the organization’s labour relations budget and that no health regions contributed any funds.
The first SAHO ad to appear in the StarPhoenix was on February 6, 2010, regarding retroactive pay. The ad merely restates information contained in page two of SAHO’s January 27, 2010, news release for the final offer. There is no indication that the ad was run to correct misinformation.
The second SAHO ad to appear in the StarPhoenix was on February 10, 2010, regarding competitive wages. Once again, the ad simply repeats information from SAHO’s January 27, 2010, news release on the general wage increase and market adjustment for certain positions. There is nothing to indicate the ad was placed to correct misinformation.
The third SAHO ad to appear in the StarPhoenix was on February 12, 2010, and entitled ‘No Reduction in Benefits.’ The ad states that SAHO’s final offer “includes no reductions to shift premium, weekend premium or earned leaves.”
The ad also states “that the current level of benefits provided by the Extended Health and Enhanced Dental Benefits Plan will continue at no cost to the employee until March 31, 2010.” This information is in SAHO’s January 27, 2010, news release as well. Like the previous ads, there is no mention of misinformation being circulated.
Posted on SAHO’s website are three short radio spots – one in February for the final offer and two in May for the addendum. As can be seen in the transcript below, there is absolutely no discussion about misinformation. It appears the purpose of the ads was to promote the final offer and addendum and push for a vote by health care workers.
Radio ad dated February 16, 2010: “SAHO has offered a new contract that works for everyone. A contract that puts patients first, attracts more healthcare workers, and gets your
Radio ad dated May 5, 2010: “SAHO made a competitive offer of nine and a half percent to healthcare workers in the provider group. We recently met with the unions and have proposed an addendum. You’re working for 2007-2008 wage rates. You’re no longer accumulating retro pay. For full time employees this is an average of $250 for every month without a contract since April 1. We believe you should have the opportunity to vote on the final offer and addendum. See working-together.info for more details.”
Radio ad dates May 5, 2010: “SAHO made a competitive offer in January of nine and half percent to healthcare workers in the provider group. We met with the unions and have now offered an addendum to address concerns. Similar workers in
Given that the newspaper and radio ads aren’t clear on exactly what the “misinformation” was that was circulating, an email was sent to SAHO CEO Susan Antosh on July 15, 2010, asking for clarification. Antosh replied on July 19, 2010:
“The misinformation we were hearing was significant on a variety of issues. It also varied by region and bargaining unit.
“I believe the ads are clear in terms of what we were trying to correct.”
When the final offer was tabled on January 27, 2010, the three health care provider unions issued a joint news release and a coalition bargaining communiqué. On February 1, 2010, the unions issued a series of six handouts explaining different facets of the final offer. When you compare the content of these against SAHO’s newspaper and radio ads there does not appear to be any misinformation by the unions on the terms of the final offer.
Given the absence of specifics and SAHO’s seeming reluctance to provide additional details, it appears the claim of “misinformation” was a bit of a red herring.
On May 3, 2010, SAHO issued a news release announcing that it had tabled an addendum to the final offer. Antosh is quoted as saying: “We have been receiving feedback from a number of health employees. It became apparent that either the intent of the proposals in the final offer was not clear, or there was misinformation circulating, and we determined that clarification was needed. We have provided an addendum to that end, and are asking the unions to give it serious consideration, and allow the employees to vote on the final offer.”
According to the news release, the addendum to the final offer includes:
▪ Clarification for how positions within multi-site work places would be addressed
▪ Additional language for flexibility in bumping rights
▪ Withdrawal of proposed language related to home care hours of work
▪ Withdrawal of other proposals specific to CUPE and SEIU-West contracts
The addendum document posted on the SAHO website provides no insight into the nature of the “misinformation” that may have been circulating on the subjects that SAHO subsequently ran newspaper ads for: retroactive pay, competitive wages, and no reduction in benefits.
A new SAHO ad focusing on the unions’ “additional demands” and retroactive pay appeared in the StarPhoenix on May 14 & 28, 2010, only made matters worse. With the headline ‘Shouldn’t health care workers vote?’ the purpose of ad is self-self-explanatory.
SAHO’s justification for the expensive advertising campaign doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The whole thing smells of a public relations exercise to try and sway public opinion in its favour. SAHO needed an excuse to get the campaign rolling, and misinformation was it.