Today we’re in Owen Sound to talk to the media about the VON’s treatment of 35 Personal Support Workers.
In the scheme of things, 35 part-time PSWs represent a small portion of the tens of thousands of workers that make the health system run.
These are 35 women who work part-time for wages mostly below $14 an hour – an amount so low that it requires the community to actually care for the caregivers through the United Way and other charities.
This year their employer sent a negotiator to the bargaining table who not only appears to have contempt for these workers, but also seems intent on damaging the long relationship between our union and VON Canada. We have to wonder; given the damage he is creating, is it really worth it from VON’s perspective?
The bargaining team is still reeling from the negotiator’s assertion that a wage increase for these poverty-level workers would only be used for cigarettes and booze.
Later he denied saying “booze.”
If VON Canada had any sense, they would have pulled the negotiator immediately and apologized to these workers.
We have had a long partnership with the VON.
In 2004 we campaigned hard in the Niagara Region after learning the VON had lost a significant home care nursing contract. Coincidentally the community had been celebrating the centennial of the VON in the region. At that time the agency was considered the gold standard for home nursing support.
Across the province the bidding system set up by the Harris government was rapidly replacing non-profit agencies with for-profit companies. The VON was losing more contracts than just Niagara through that process.
One of the Niagara clients signed an affidavit that the CEO of the CCAC had told him the VON was not going to have their contract renewed before the competition had even begun, proof the competitions were anything but fair.
While our efforts failed to save the Niagara VON, it did result in both a moratorium on competitive bidding and a review of the system by former Health Minister Elinor Caplan. That review, incidentally, had recommended better industry standards for employee compensation.
In 2008 the province decided enough time had passed that competitive bidding would be given another chance.
The new competitions would take place as a series of stages. If you failed the first stage, you would be disqualified from moving forward in the competition.
The first region to undergo the new process was Hamilton. The first two agencies to be dropped from the process were VON Hamilton and St. Joseph’s Home Care. Like Niagara, both had been serving the city for a century. Had that decision stood, several hundred nurses would have lost their jobs and a crisis would have likely occurred. The nurses had vowed they would sooner quit than apply to work with whoever won the competition.
OPSEU worked with its labour allies to hold a massive rally on Hamilton Mountain to protest the decision. The overwhelming community and media response led Health Minister George Smitherman to restore the moratorium on competitive bidding and cancel the bidding process already underway in Hamilton. As a result both VON Hamilton and St. Joseph’s were given extensions on their home care contracts – extensions that exist to this day.
We saved VON Hamilton from a certain end. They certainly thanked us at the time.
Our work hasn’t stopped there. Since then we have cooperated on pension issues and recently implemented a workplace mental health survey at VON Hamilton that has led to significant and positive changes.
We think we have been good partners.
Had we not continually intervened it is likely VON would have ceased to exist not just in Hamilton, but likely in Ontario.
And yet we now face this.
VON Canada is between CEOs right now. Judith Shamian has gone off to serve as president of the International Council of Nurses.
Jo-Anne Poirier is expected to replace her in January. Poirier should know something about poverty having served as a board member of the Ottawa United Way. Her last position was as CEO of Ottawa Community Housing. Poirier was also on the first Champlain LHIN board.
Should the VON PSWs strike next week, she may be walking into a poisoned environment and a damaged brand. The VON still relies on donations, although the donors may not be entirely impressed by this most recent performance.
John Gallinger is holding down the fort in between CEOs. Gallinger normally serves at the Chief Operating Officer.
Poirier should hold Gallinger to account should the image of the VON be one of a heartless employer stranding 35 women to walk a picket line over the holiday season.
What happens next Tuesday is more than just a routine bargaining session in one of the more out-of-the-way places in the province. It could set the tone for the future of VON in Ontario.