Canadian Blood Services: A bloody shame

By Robert Devet

Eight PEI blood collection workers, all women, all part timers, have been on strike for close to eight months now.

As Rankandfile reported in January, the women want a guaranteed minimum number of hours each week. That would allow them to qualify for benefits, and bring a bit of predictability into their daily lives.

Their employer, Canadian Blood Services (CBS), isn’t budging.

CBS is a not-for-profit, charitable organization operating everywhere in Canada except Quebec. Its sole mission is to manage the blood supply for Canadians. Its budget of roughly $1 billion is mostly provincial money.

Eight months is a very long time to be out on the picket line.  12931283_10156669860990212_8692343640771197007_n

“We have each other, that’s really what it all comes down to,” says Tanya Herrell, president of the Nova Scotia Union of Public & Private Employees (NSUPE), Local 19. “We’re a small workforce, and we are all friends, and sort of hold each other together.”

A mediator is trying to find a way to get the parties talking again, says Nancy Elliott, a NSUPE official who is involved in the negotiations. “Now we need to consult with members.”

No matter what happens, the significance of the strike extends well beyond PEI.  The Charlottetown workers are fighting the same issues CBS workers Canada-wide are facing.

Not just workers, generous donors anywhere are also encountering obstacles when looking to donate blood.

Some argue that CBS is in such a rush to cut costs that it even puts the safety of our blood supply in jeopardy.

Workers squeezed everywhere

CBS likes its workers part time and precarious, not just in PEI but anywhere in Canada.

That was the consensus when unions representing CBS workers all across Canada met in Vancouver last fall, Mike Davidson tells Rankandfile.  Davidson is the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) national representative for three CBS Locals in New Brunswick.

“If CBS had it their way, their clinics would  be all staffed by volunteers, and if they couldn’t have that, they’d settle for an entirely casual workforce,” says Davidson.

Two of the New Brunswick locals have a few part-timers with guaranteed hours, and it has been an ongoing struggle to keep it that way, Davidson says.  In all of the three New Brunswick locals there are only three full-time unionized employees.

“There is no stability. (CBS) doesn’t want stability,” says Davidson. “Meanwhile, they complain about a lack of commitment by the workers.

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Striking PEI blood collection workers join an information picket against for-pay plasma clinics in Halifax in late March. Photo Robert Devet

“I always respond that commitment is a two-way street.  Give the workers something they can bank on. Give them regular hours and regular work.”

Davidson also has an idea where to find the money.

“We always tell them to look at their executives wages. It’s definitely a top heavy bloated organization.”

Indeed, CBS CEO Dr. Graham Sher, earned more than $800 thousand last year. An astounding nine Vice Presidents together made another cool $3.2 million.

“You are a piece of meat giving blood”

It’s one thing to want to keep your workers poor and precarious. Many companies do it. But donors?

“These days donors probably have more complaints about scheduling and clinic times than employees do.”

That’s what Ron Stockton told us when we first talked to him in January of this year. Stockton is the  NSUPE business agent for the PEI local now on strike.

“With CBS it is never about delivering service, it is always about getting the biggest bang for your buck,” Stockton says.

A 2015 press release issued by CBS announced the Canada-wide closure of three permanent clinics, the replacement of a permanent clinic with a mobile one, pulling mobile clinics from 16 communities, and “adjusting clinic schedules across the country.”

“CBS is being transformed into a business, as opposed to a public service or a humanitarian organization. These days it’s all about automation and squeezing efficiencies out of donors and workers,” Stockton concludes.

The latest trend is an obsession with automation, Stockton says.

“When you walk into the clinic you register by inserting your health card into some kind of ATM machine, then you have your blood taken by an employee who is too rushed to talk to you, then you schedule your next appointment at another machine.

“Having  been a donor, I can tell you donors want to see people,” Stockton says. “I am old enough to remember the days when staff taking your blood had time to talk to you.

“Doesn’t happen anymore, to CBS you are a piece of meat giving blood, you could be a bag.”

Blood safety concerns

Lately CBS has been in the news because of its endorsement of Canadian Plasma Resources, a private for-profit company that wants to pay for plasma donations.  The Saskatchewan company is eying Nova Scotia and New Brunswick for expansion.

Organizations such as Bloodwatch and public healthcare advocates in the Maritimes have strongly opposed the introduction of private for-profit clinics while we have an effective not-for-profit blood service already in place.

Paying for donations is asking for trouble, they believe.

But concerns around the quality of our blood supply go deeper.

“Workers in our locals fear for the safety of this blood system altogether,” Davidson warns.

“CBS is more concerned about cost savings than about the safety of the blood supply. They have  pared the organization down so much that all resilience and safety is removed, and we are going right back to 1997,” Davidson says.

1997 is when the Krever inquiry issued its final report on the  so-called tainted blood tragedy.

Between 1980 and 1985 at least 2000 recipients of blood and blood products contracted HIV because the Canadian Red Cross Society and government officials were more interested in cost saving and cutting corners than safety

Another 30,000 transfusion recipients were infected with hepatitis C. Thousands lost their lives as a direct result.

As a result of the Krever findings criminal charges were laid against Red Cross functionaries, the organization was stripped of its blood collection functions, and CBS was created to replace it.

Now history threatens to repeat itself, Davidson believes.

“CBS tries to make its operation as lean as possible,” he says. “We cautioned them to make sure that there are no system failures such as the Krever enquiry identified. But they are continually watering it down. It’s all about dollars and cents for them.”

When front line CBS workers are concerned about safety, then provincial Health ministers who fund CBS to the tune of $1 billion per year should listen, says Davidson.

“We call upon the responsible ministers to step up and pay attention. We need to raise the alarm that things are not good.”

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