This article appeared in the Fredericton Daily Gleaner on March 25, 2019
A Commentary by Daryl Branscombe
If the ongoing labour dispute between the New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes (NBANH) and CUPE tells us anything, it’s that the approach to bargaining in the nursing home sector does not serve frail and defenseless senior and their families well. If the truth were fully known, neither does it serve employees well.
This approach will never lead to real workplace change for nursing home workers. And it will certainly not solve the real problems in senior care in New Brunswick.
The relationship between CUPE and the NBANH appears to be defined by antagonism, gamesmanship, and political maneuvering. New Brunswickers should be cynical about failed contract talks stretched over three years, culminating in threatened job action just as other CUPE collective agreements are set to expire. Good faith bargaining requires actual good faith intention to bargain.
That’s not to say that the NBANH has clean hands. As one business owner with a productive union-employer relationship said to one of our members: you get the union you deserve. If you don’t communicate, engage, resolve problems quickly, and treat people fairly, don’t expect your union leaders to come to the table in a cooperative state of mind.
There are many progressive unionized workplaces in this province that have never experienced a walkout or a strike. Both employers and employees communicate openly and regularly, address local issues promptly, and try to ensure people go home at the end of the day feeling valued. They negotiate based on genuine interest in advancing organizational goals to everyone’s benefit.
Make no mistake. There seems to be no genuine interest on any party’s side in taking this approach in this case.
In this current dispute, none of the entities at the bargaining table is close enough to the workers, the residents, and the employers to solve the real issues that seem to plague our nursing home system. And none of the entities seems particularly concerned with the fate of the seniors caught in the middle.
With CUPE representing the local unions, the NBANH representing 46 individual nursing homes, and the Government of New Brunswick having the last say on all funding decisions, the process and relationship structure is not set up for success and progress.
A one-size-fits-all collective agreement for 46 individual nursing homes is simply not workable in NB. Each of New Brunswick’s 68 nursing homes (24 other homes are either not covered by this agreement or have no union) has its own workplace culture and culture of care. Some are great, others need help. While some nursing homes have managed to tackle problems of absenteeism and Workers Compensation claims, others are still struggling with the management and governance issues that impact those metrics.
Some nursing homes (particularly in declining rural areas) struggle with recruitment. Others have great success with recruitment and retention, thanks to great workplace cultures.
There are several nursing homes in New Brunswick that can serve as models for their peers. They are fully staffed, have limited challenges in recruiting, have achieved reasonable rates of absenteeism and Workers Compensation claims, and have a positive workplace culture. They’ve invested in management training, governance, employee engagement, and professional development.
To the extent that their employees perform the same jobs as their colleagues in hospitals, most New Brunswickers (including our group) agree that nursing home workers should be compensated at the same rates with similar benefits.
The well-functioning, well-managed nursing homes in this province aren’t the ones driving the current narrative about a system on the brink of disaster. There are nursing homes in this province with significant challenges that directly impact employees. Their problems can’t be bundled into the type of one-size-fits-all solution produced by the NBNH and CUPE bargaining model. And these problems won’t be solved by wage rate alone.
Solutions to these problems require both bargaining parties to get down in the weeds at the local level and work together.
In recent years, several high-profile union federations have disintegrated because they couldn’t serve the unique needs of different membership segments. In the last six months, half the members of the Kaiser Permanente Labor Federation cleaved off to form their own alliance because their distinct needs couldn’t be adequately met under the existing behemoth federation. Bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s just bigger.
If CUPE and the NBANH can’t properly serve the workers and the employers they represent, perhaps it’s time they move out of the way and make way for entities that take a more progressive and productive approach to employer-union relationships.
In the meantime, it appears that the parties involved here have lost the trust of New Brunswickers that that they can bargain in good faith, deliver real solutions, and act in the best interests of our most vulnerable residents.
This must be the last time that employees are put in the horrible position of having to abandon their senior residents. And it must be the beginning of a new day for nursing homes that puts excellence, superb care, magnetic workplace environments as top priority.
Our seniors deserve nothing less.