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Labour Relations Board rules against Prince Rupert Regional Hospital management, Northern Health

The Labour Relations Board has ruled that members of Northern Health operated in an anti-union manner when it comes to the replacement of the aging steam boiler at the hospital.

The announcement of boiler replacement came in September of last year, and Northern Health pointed to cost savings as a key reason for the move. However, without a steam boiler the five steam engineer positions that were under the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) were eliminated and new maintenance positions were created in the Hospital Employee’s Union (HEU).

According to the ruling from the labour board, Michael Curnes was hired by Northwest Health Administrator Sheila Gordon-Payne in May of 2010 as Manager of Facilities and Support Service which made him the supervisor for the five union members. But Curnes found the union “to be uncooperative and difficult” and “felt that the bargaining unit members were actively trying to frustrate his efforts” when he wanted to have the steam engineers perform general hospital maintenance.

In March 2011, after learning of the opportunity to upgrade the boiler to an electrical system, a business case prepared by Curnes recommended that boiler be replaced, that the five IUOE positions be eliminated – with the document noting that there were over 30 outstanding labour issues with the five members - and that three HEU maintenance positions be advertised for. A June 16, 2011 backgrounder went further pointing out that “displacing the 5 IUOE employees in this department and reposting these positions as HEU Maintenance Worker IIIs we anticipate will bring to an end the labour/management gridlock PRRH/NH has been embroiled in the past 18 months”. Any mention of union conflict was removed in a revised Business Case that was sent out on June 23, 2011.

On July 11, 2011, the section 54 notice to change the collective agreement was served to the appropriate authorities and on July 15 Northern Health posted for four HEU maintenance positions in Prince Rupert.

While the hospital refuted anti-union motivation in replacing the boiler by pointing out the decision was not Michael Curnes’ to make, the Labour Board stated that management was well aware of Curnes’ issues with the union and that the idea of replacing steam with electric was his after he heard about it at a meeting. While the final business case didn’t include any mention of union grievances, the Board stated that those making the decision would have been aware of those concerns based on past backgrounders and business cases presented.

“I further find that the members of management involved in this Initiative were aware that the first ‘driving reason’ for the change was as set out in the first draft of the Business Case: ‘There are 30+ outstanding and escalating labour issues with IUOE and its 5 members at PRRH’. I further find that NHA management was supportive of this driving reason. They worked with Curnes to cleanse the formal documents of any anti-Union sentiments and to approve the Initiative so that it appeared only to be a pure technological change, and that the labour relations implications were a mere consequence,” reads the ruling prepared by vice-chair Ritu Mahil.

“I find that these members of the management team were aware of Curnes’ motivations and were to varying extents supportive of that motive. Accordingly, the Employer was motivated, at least in part, by anti-Union animus in designing and approving the technological change to the boiler system of the Hospital.”

The decision closed with a ruling that future proceedings between the parties before the Labour Relation Board will address the question of remedy.

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