NANAIMO – CUPE members and community supporters on Vancouver Island turned out in full force this week to demand their right to free collective bargaining.
In Courtenay Friday, more than 200 people rallied outside Comox Valley Liberal MLA Don McRae’s constituency office telling the Campbell government to bargain in good faith with the Ambulance Paramedics.
In Nanaimo Saturday, CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill reminded a boisterous crowd of the critical and often dangerous work of B.C.’s 3,500 ambulance paramedics, CUPE 873, and the signal that the government is sending. “Make no mistake,” he said, “this government wants to privatize our paramedics in the same way they are trying to privatize the rest of health care.” Calling it an attack on every community in B.C., O’Neill said the protests against Bill 21 (the Ambulance Paramedics Collective Agreement Act) will reach every community – more than 120 in the next two months.
Bill 21 forced paramedics to end their seven-month strike while they were in the process of voting on an offer from the government – a shameful first in Canadian labour history.
Responding to misinformation that the two sides were far so apart in negotiations that they had to be legislated back, O’Neill said “I was there in the room - we were negotiating and we were very close to an agreement – I would say only a weekend away from a deal.” O’Neill said everything changed with the appointment of Kevin Falcon as health services minister. “As soon as they appointed the guy who privatized BC Rail and is trying to privatize health care all the things we had on the table were suddenly off the table. The next thing that happened was legislation.”
O’Neill also pointed to the demand from VANOC that the government end the dispute before the 2010 Games. “We all know who’s really running the province – as soon as VANOC sent a memo to the Campbell government they introduced Bill 21.”
CUPE 873 spokesman BJ Chute said “Falcon claimed the legislation was necessary to fight H1N1, but we know that’s not true – we were already working under Essential Services orders.”
Chute vowed that if VANOC and the province follow through on threats to use “replacement paramedics” or “volunteers” from outside B.C. for the Olympics, “we will be there to meet them at airports, bus stations and border crossings - scabs are NOT welcome in our British Columbia.”
CUPE 1858 president Rob Campbell (representing 400 University of Vancouver Island members) reminded the government that “collective bargaining is a charter right and a process that we all believe in.” He added that “we need to get back to bargaining – Bill 21 and Bill 29 (against the HEU) are not good for anyone.”
Campbell told the crowd that “If health care were an Olympic sport, there would be wheelbarrows full of money for it.”