By Daniel Tseghay
Beginning at 6 a.m. on Friday July 7th, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 1816 found themselves locked out of their workplace, the Pacific Blue Cross’ (PBC) primary facility in Burnaby, BC. The lockout and the members’ resulting picket is the latest development in a series of increasingly unacceptable conditions imposed by the employer.
The benefits provider and the members of local 1816, representing more than 600 employees of PBC, have been without a contract since the summer of last year and, though they began bargaining in September and have had 11 meetings at the table in total, they are at an impasse.
“I’ve never seen anything like in the 40 years I’ve been there,” says Beth Miller, President of local 1816, in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “I’ve been the president for 20 years and we’ve always been able to reach deals and they usually mandate something we can agree to but we’ve never seen anything like this.”
The two main issues for the members, who consist of underwriters, benefit examiners, disability claim representatives, benefits administrators and call centre employees, are wages and retiree benefits. The employer, which provides health, dental, life, and disability coverage for more than two million individuals and unionized workers primarily in the public service, is offering a small lump-sum payment instead of wage increases. When negotiating began, the employer wanted to significantly rollback retiree benefits and offload the costs to the employees and current PBC retirees employees. “That’s illegal insofar as it applies to all retirees,” says James Richardson, CUPE National Representative, in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “Benefits for retirees are already vested and the employer doesn’t have a right to retroactively change that arrangement once their benefits are vested.”
“It’s very ironic,” says one member in a video produced by the union, “that we are a health benefit company and they want to take that from especially retirees. We all know those people are going to need them the most.”
“When they retire they’re going to be paying quite a bit higher premiums,” says Miller of the couple hundred dollars a month they’d likely have to pay in retirement.
Through mediation at the Labour Board in November, the employer backed off from taking away benefits from members who were already retired. Despite this, the employer continues to argue that large portions of their benefits should be covered by the union or the members.
PBC is claiming they can’t afford to pay the benefits. But the current costs for retiree benefits are $914,000, or around two per cent of total payroll, according to Richardson. If the employer won its preferred concession regarding retiree benefits they would save less than a singly per cent of payroll in the midst of significant profits, with the employer making nearly 11 million dollars in 2016.
“What the employer tries to draw a distinction between is the operating side of the business and the investment side of the business,” says Richardson. “As an insurer, the employer takes on significant amounts of money and invests them and makes a return on it and that helps fund the business. The employer says that, because on the operating side, they’ve seen losses that they’re struggling financially, but the reality is when you include the investment income they’re doing quite well. They made 30 million dollars last in year with their investments.”
With the employer’s concessions still fundamentally unchanged, the local organized a private membership meeting around late November where the members unanimously instructed the union to not return to the table so long as the concessions remain. Since then, the two sides have met at the table following assurances from the employer that they’re prepared to move on the issue. “What we saw was, yet again, though not a complete elimination of any employer contributions for retiree benefits, it was still a significant concession,” says Richardson. “We rejected that.”
On April 13th, the members overwhelmingly voted in favour of job action after a strike vote and beginning May 13th, they have taken to legal job actions. The union imposed an overtime ban. The union also did rotating job actions by department. “The customer service call centre might have been withdrawn for half a day or the claims adjudication department would be withdrawn for half a day,” says Richardson. “That would just put pressure on the employer to come to the table and accept our offer.” Some members have withdrawn their labour and others have leafleted at PBC events.
The employer has responded by not paying its contribution to the Medical Services Plan of British Columbia, extended health, and employee plans. On June 28th, the employer sent an email unilaterally changing some terms and conditions of employment. The employer said that it would not honour paid sick time and family responsibility leave; that it would not approve any new vacation leave requests; and that it would no longer automatically collect union dues. Whether this is legal or not is an open question and is currently before the labour board.
Shortly before that, another element emerged. The union discovered that a number of PBC’s Board of Directors are prominent figures of the labour movement, including a former secretary treasurer of CUPE BC, a former staff representative at the BC Government Employees’ Union, a former secretary treasurer of the Vancouver District Labour Council, and others. On June 21st, The PBC Board Chair Mark Olsen even sent an email to the entire bargaining unit encouraging the members to accept the employer’s concessions, signing the message as Western Canada Sub-Regional Manager for LiUNA (Laborers’ International Union of North America).
As of June 30th, members have withdrawn all their labour. On that day, BC Secretary-Treasurer Trevor Davies joined BC Federation of Labour Secretary-Treasurer Aaron Ekman, MoveUp Secretary-Treasurer Lori Mayhew, and many other labour activists for a rally called “Standing Up for Benefits”, located outside PBC’s head office.
Picketing only began on Friday, when the members were locked out, and it will be happening 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at their primary facility until there’s a decent proposal from the employer. “They won’t go back to work until we get a fair collective agreement,” says Miller.
With no negotiating meetings set for the future, how long the members will be locked out and picketing at the facility is an open question. If there isn’t an agreement in the coming months, the union plans to attend the employer’s Annual General Meeting on September 7th, where allPBC benefits holders, which includes a significant number of unionized workers, can make changes at the director level.
But in the meantime, the energy at the picket is high and suggests that, eventually, the employer will have to give in. “The morale of the members is higher than I’ve ever seen in any dispute with an employer before,” says Richardson. “These members are angry at Pacific Blue Cross and the current leadership there. They’ve spent their entire careers with this employer and they’re just absolutely disgusted with the direction that’s been taken.”