Making HIStory: Union Campaign Saves 91 Jobs

This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of our quarterly magazine, The Union Stand:

Unions fight for many things for our members: better wages, benefits, and working conditions. All are undeniably important aspects of a contract. But at the end of the day, the most vital provision is job security language.

Job security language effectively makes it difficult for an employer to eliminate jobs by making it an expensive and onerous task.  

The NSGEU has fought for the best possible job security language at the bargaining table over the years, always with the hope that we won’t need to put it into use. Recently, however, that language was instrumental in saving jobs within our health care system.

In late 2020, the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA), advised the union that 91 members working in Health Information Services (HIS), scanning and archiving medical records at 24 hospitals throughout the province, were facing potential layoffs. Members working in Central and Western zones were NSGEU members, and members working in Northern and Eastern zones were CUPE members. The majority of the members affected work in rural parts of the province, and 84 are women.

The NSHA was planning to eliminate these jobs and hand the work over to an American-owned private company, Iron Mountain, as an untendered contract.

The NSGEU immediately informed the provincial government of the NSHA’s plan to contract out this work, who were unaware of the health authority’s plan, but ultimately, government was prepared to allow the employer to proceed.

“It was an insult to these health care workers who have been helping to keep our health care system secure and operational throughout this pandemic,” said NSGEU President Jason MacLean.

It’s also worth noting that these layoffs were announced against the backdrop of a global pandemic, when everyone was also faced with an enormous amount of stress and uncertainty.

“This employer and government should be focused on supporting workers and our communities, especially at this uncertain time,” MacLean pointed out.

Aside from the unions’ obvious concerns about their members’ job security, there were also scores of other concerns: by failing to fairly tender a contract, the employer could not guarantee the contract would be competitive or that it will adequately protect citizens’ private health information. As we know, this government has repeatedly failed to protect personal, private information (see repeated FOIPOP database failures).

On December 11th, the NSHA sent a memo to the affected members, formally advising them that: “Following a thorough review of our current situation and alternatives, a decision has been made to shift our scanning and archiving service to an external vendor”, and that “As a member of our Health Records team, you will be directly affected by this change.” A copy of the memo can be accessed here.

Then, for weeks, they gave these members no further information on the layoffs, and left them to wait in limbo to find out their fate.

Meanwhile, the NSGEU and CUPE were working together to submit a response to the government’s plan, taking the opportunity to point out its many flaws, and raising a number of questions the employer had failed to consider or answer. A copy of the report we produced can be found here: A Matter of Trust – A Review of NSHA’s Quiet Plan to Hand Control of Nova Scotians’ Health Information to an American Company

In response to our report and the negative media attention it garnered, the NSHA issued a public statement saying, “the decision to outsource these jobs has not yet been made, we’re merely “exploring it….”. This statement clearly contradicted the memo sent to staff on December 11th– ten days earlier.

“Which is it? It can’t be both,” asked MacLean. “Members are told a decision has been made on December 11th and read on December 23rd that no decision has been made. There is a lot of confusion and fear and, frankly, Nova Scotia Health has really dropped the ball. It’s up to them to clarify what is going on because these people deserve to know what is really going on with their jobs.”

 Finally, after an agonizing wait for the members, the unions received word on January 22nd that NSHA had decided to halt their plan to contract out the members’ work. 

The unions had always maintained the position that the work of HIS members is invaluable, and it appears that the NSHA finally came to understand the important role they play in our health care system. This was an exercise in the strength of solidarity — and the importance of maintaining strong job security language in our collective agreements!

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