The British Columbia government moved to end a crisis in the health-care system last night when it introduced legislation to force 43,000 striking medical employees back to work.
The emergency legislation, brought in on the fifth day of a strike that led to the cancellation of more than 1,000 operations, imposes a 15-per-cent wage cut in a two-year contract.
Government officials said they were putting the interests of patients first, but union leaders said they were shocked at how the rights of workers were ignored.
The legislation was brought in during an evening sitting of the legislature in Victoria after a desperate effort earlier in the day failed to get both sides back to the bargaining table.
Labour Minister Graham Bruce said he was told the sides were so far apart there was no hope of a negotiated settlement.
"This legislation ends the labour dispute and requires employees to return to work immediately," Mr. Bruce said. "Since the strike began four days ago, thousands of surgeries and diagnostic procedures have been postponed or cancelled.
"Patients concerned about going through surgeries and tests have now been superseded by the concerns of the delays and not knowing when these might be rescheduled," he said in the legislature.
Premier Gordon Campbell defended the harsh terms of the deal, saying it still left members of the Hospital Employees Union with "the highest pay of any HEU workers in the country."
New Democratic Party House Leader Joy MacPhail called the legislation "a new low" for the Liberals.
Chris Allnutt, the union's secretary and business manager, said he had never seen such a severe contract imposed by a government before.
"What government has done is unprecedented, imposing a 15-per-cent wage rollback on health-care workers who are exercising their legal right to strike," he said.
It was unclear last night when workers would be required to return to the job, but that was expected to start today.
Health officials have said it will takes weeks, perhaps longer, to clear up the massive backlog of surgeries that built up during the strike, which began at noon Sunday when a job action that was expected to be nothing more than a refusal to work overtime suddenly blossomed into a walkout.
Health Minister Colin Hansen said the dispute couldn't end quickly enough for patients who were suffering because of the withdrawal of services. "From the perspective of the patients," he said, "the time has run out."
There were no immediate details on job-security provisions, the issue the union has focused on as local employers continue to contract out jobs performed by many Health Employees' Union members.
"We definitely need to bring this thing to an end," Mr. Bruce said earlier after his deputy, Lee Doney, failed in bringing the two sides back to the bargaining table.
Mr. Allnutt had tried to head off a legislated end to the strike yesterday, saying the workers would change the nature of their job action and reconsider their position if the Health Employers Association of B.C. stopped laying off workers during talks.
"We are not asking for a reversal of existing privatization contracts as a precondition to kick-starting talks. We are saying that employers must stop firing workers."
He noted that back-to-work legislation has not helped in the past.
"Legislation does not solve problems," Mr. Allnutt said. "They have used legislation [before] . . . It has not made public health care better. It has made it, in fact, a lot worse."
The main issue in the dispute was a plan by the province's health employers to contract out thousands of support and technical jobs. Wages paid by contracting companies are considerably lower than the unionized workers receive now. Employers had argued that B.C. staff were among the highest paid in the country and they needed to trim labour costs to funnel money into patient care.
The union, however, scoffed at that argument, saying the layoffs were harming health-care delivery. It argues private companies don't perform such tasks as well as unionized hospital workers.
The strikers are largely support staff, such as cleaners and food-service employees, but also include some nurses and technical staff.
So far, more than 4,200 hospital jobs have been contracted out to private companies. The union said another 2,500 pink slips were mailed out while the two sides were in negotiations.
After the strike began, picketers were soon joined by nurses and other unionized medical workers, including paramedics.
Hospitals struggled to provide bare-bones emergency care, but all elective surgeries were put on hold, as were diagnostic tests such as X-rays, ultrasounds and CT scans.
In the province's two largest regions, Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, more than 1,200 surgeries were cancelled in four days.
Clay Adams, a spokesman for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, said 300 beds were closed there this week. "There's an enormous backlog in the system."