Powell River General Hospital dietary workers have voted overwhelmingly to take job action if a new contract cannot be agreed to, according to BC Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU).
More than 4,000 union members work in contracted support services, primarily in cleaning and food services, in 75 hospitals and facilities on the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island as well as in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley.
Multinational corporations Acciona, Aramark, Compass-Marquise and Sodexo employee the union workers.
After two weeks of voting wrapped up on Friday, June 23, 96 per cent of the members voted in favour of strike action.
Hospital union spokesperson Neil Monckton said the HEU has been bargaining on behalf of Powell River General Hospital food-service workers employed by Sodexo, which provides food services at Powell River General Hospital, Willingdon Creek Village and Evergreen Care Unit for Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.
“We’ve negotiated essential services for Sodexo and we’re in a position to issue strike notice with 72 hours notice,” said Monckton.
The latest round of bargaining with Sodexo wrapped up without an agreement and now the union is concerned it will not be able to negotiate a contract during the summer, he added.
Vancouver Coastal Heath spokesperson Anna Marie D’Angelo said that while the contract dispute involves workers who work inside the health authority’s facilities, they are not employees of the health authority.
D’Angelo said the health authority’s interest is to ensure any potential future labour dispute does not create an interruption in patient care.
“We just want to assure the public that our patients and clients are not going to have a disruption of care,” she said. “Historically, the labour relations board, the ones who designate essential services, have made sure the service is not interrupted.”
Monckton said if job action does go forward, it will not shut the hospital or care facilities down.
“There’s no provisions for a typical strike because there’s health and safety of the patients and residents to consider,” he added.
Monckton said the essential service level means patients and residents will be taken care of, but workers may look at other actions, such as work-to-rule or overtime bans, to increase pressure on the companies.
Key issues for the union include job security and wages, said Monckton. These workplaces face high employee turnover due to the working conditions, he added.
“There’s a constant churn because the wages are too low and the working conditions are very challenging,” said Monckton.
When the province’s health authorities began privatizing hospital food and cleaning services in 2003, about 8,000 workers lost their jobs, with about half being hired back by the private companies.
The workforce had their wages effectively cut in half, from $18 per hour to $9.25, and lost pensions and most of their benefits, said Monckton.
“Through contract negotiations they’ve been slowly rebuilding, but they are still nowhere near to what they used to have,” he added. “These are not wages that can support families.”
According to a media statement announcing the vote results, the union is hopeful the strong strike mandate will encourage employers to reach negotiated settlements.
“We believe a fair and reasonable agreement is within reach if employers get serious about addressing low wages and a total lack of job security that creates uncertainty for workers when health authorities change contractors,” stated HEU secretary-business manager Jennifer Whiteside.
Cleaning services in Powell River General Hospital, Willingdon Creek Village and Evergreen Care Unit are provided by Compass-Marquise. Compass workers in Powell River are under a separate contract than those in the hospital’s food services.
Sodexo could not be reached for comment.