Union barbecues warn residents of health care privatization

Matt Gardner
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All summer long, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has been holding barbecues to raise awareness on the threats facing public health care.

On Wednesday, members of CUPE Local 4777 -- which represents area health-care workers -- held their final barbecue in front of City Hall, serving up burgers while educating residents on the spectre of looming privatization.

Over the course of a dozen area barbecues so far this summer, public interest in the issue has steadily grown, according to CUPE Local 4777 president Helen Sawatsky.

“From the barbecues that we held in June compared to the barbecues that we’ve held in August, there’s an extreme difference in the amount of people, and we have been hearing more talk about it,” Sawatsky said.

“People are phoning, asking more questions … and there is more talk about it. Even sitting around with people that I don’t talk to on a daily basis, they’ll bring it up and say, ‘Well, what are those barbecues about?’”

CUPE has identified numerous threats from privatization. Aside from the threat to members’ livelihoods, union officials argue that contracting out health care services to private firms would cost taxpayers more money while lowering the quality of health care.

The impetus for privatization, Sawatsky noted, comes from both the provincial and federal governments.

Earlier this year, the federal government refused to sign a new health accord, an agreement made between with provinces and territories that sets national standards and provides a stable source of health-care funding.

“Because of that, the funding from the federal government will be even less to the provincial government -- and the provincial government isn’t funding health care the way that they should be,” Sawatsky said.

For its part, Regina has encouraged privatization of different aspects of health care throughout the province.

Aside from the proliferation of private surgery clinics and diagnostic clinics, the government has announced that a new mental health hospital in North Batleford and a long-term care facility in Saskatoon will be built as public-private partnerships, also known as P3s.

Locally, the most visible effect of the trend has been the signing of a contract agreement between 3sHealth and the Alberta-based company K-Bro Linens System to take over Saskatchewan’s health care laundry -- a development that may lead to the loss of 100 jobs at North Sask Laundry in Prince Albert.

As a result, North Sask Laundry employees, who are represented by CUPE Local 3736, have been left in a state of limbo.

“We’re still waiting,” CUPE Local 3736 president Anita Labossiere said. “They say they’re not opening K-Pro until June 2015, but they can’t guarantee anything, we were also told -- and so we still are going to work every day wondering when the last day is.”

There’s certain things that should always stay public. Health care, education -- those are the basic needs that we need as humans and we have a right to. Helen Sawatsky

“They want to keep their options open,” she added. “But I mean, it affects people emotionally, physically. It makes it a bad work environment. It makes it negative for anyone that goes to work because you never know, ‘Oh, today’s the day we get our notice.’”

The threat to the livelihoods of North Sask Laundry employees through privatization was one reason for Labossiere’s presence at the CUPE barbecue on Wednesday.

Noting that she supported the cause of CUPE Local 4777 members “100 per cent,” Labossiere criticized the government’s approach to privatization.

“They’re very secretive about the whole thing,” she said. “They’re not forthcoming or upfront about all their information. There are so many hidden things. That’s not fair to the public. It’s not fair to the workers.”

For Sawatsky, one of the most distressing aspects of privatization is the potential for unequal treatment depending on ability to pay, with wealthier patients receiving better care.

“There’s always room for private, but there’s certain things that should always stay public,” she argued.

“Health care, education -- those are the basic needs that we need as humans and we have a right to.”

With summer drawing to a close, CUPE’s goal of raising awareness of health care privatization shows no signs of letting up.

After one final barbecue on Thursday in Hafford, members will turn their attention to their upcoming family event, the Keep Health Care Public Festival.

Taking place on Saturday, Sept. 6 from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Kinsmen Park, the event will feature children’s activities, free food, local speakers and entertainment courtesy of Constant Reminder and other local bands.

Sawatsky noted, “We want to keep up the public awareness.”

See also:

Concerned citizens protest lack of new health accord

Questions remain with laundry deal

Organizations: CUPE Local 4777, Bro Linens System

Geographic location: North Batleford, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Hafford Kinsmen Park

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