Capital Health unions earn their naps

Capital Health is named one of Canada's top employers, but it wasn't management that foisted those good bennies on employees.

"Where's the nap room?" is the running joke over at Capital Health, as employees scurry around the hallways and peer through doors and windows in the faux-search for the celebrated, but elusive, "private rooms for napping."

The nap rooms were cited by Toronto publisher Mediacorp and Maclean's magazine as reason why the Capital District Health Authority is one of "Canada's Top 100 Employers." Maclean's also mentions Cap Health's flex time scheduling and "healthy cafeteria food," while Mediacorp's more extensive list includes the employer's contribution to a defined benefit plan, maternity and paternity leave top-up to 93 percent of salary and extended health coverage for retired employees, among other benefits.

Capital Health is rightly pleased with the positive press. "I'm thrilled that we are receiving this prestigious recognition," crows CEO Chris Power in a press release posted on Cap Health's website. "Great people work at Capital Health. We know that and now the country does too. The award also illustrates how we are successfully reaching our goal of being a world-leading haven of people-centred health, healing and learning,"

Jokes about nap rooms aside, employees I've spoken with say the Top Employer designation is warranted---Capital Health is indeed a decent place to work. They like their jobs, and they like their benefits.

But, thing is, those benefits didn't simply come from the goodness of management's heart.

"My biggest issue" with the designation "is that union wasn't given some credit for negotiating those benefits," says Linda Power, former executive director of the Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union, which represents Cap Health employees. "We haven't gone to the bargaining table and said, 'Can we have this?' and they've said, 'Oh, absolutely, because it's good for morale.' Rather, [these benefits] have been hard-fought for, and even in some cases around the bargaining table, management has come looking to claw benefits back."

Before the QE2 Health Sciences Centre was created in 1996 by merging the Victoria General Hospital, the Camp Hill Medical Centre, the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre and the Nova Scotia Cancer and Research Foundation, only the 2,600 VG employees were government employees who received full benefits---the 4,000 employees of the other agencies received lesser benefits.

Through the merger, management tried to force all employees off the Public Service Superannuation Plan, the defined benefit pension plan celebrated by Mediacorp, and into the Nova Scotia Association of Health Organizations pension plan, a plan with much lower benefits. NSGEU successfully fought for the right of employees to keep their existing pension plans, including the PSSP, although new employees are enrolled in the NSAHO as a matter of course.

Likewise, Power says that top-up pay for pregnancy, parental and adoption leaves was particularly resisted by management, and union reps say they've had to fend off repeated attempts to roll back retirement health benefits.

"I've never gone to the bargaining table with Capital Health where they've come to give us something," says Power. "They come to take away. When it comes to issues of principle---whether it's top-up for pregnancy, parental and adoption, or sick-leave benefits---these things never come without a lot of contention from the other side."

As it ever was, and ever will be.

The fundamental fact of employer-employee relations is that employees always have to fight to get the best deal possible, and that fight is most successfully fought collectively, with a union.

Moreover, successful union representation is not just good for employees---as the Top Employers designation shows, it's also good for management, and it's good for the rest of us, as hard-fought for benefits become the new standard in the community.

"I think it's great that the benefits are there, but there's a party missing in the Top Employer designation, and it's the union who negotiated on behalf the employees," says Power.

As for the elusive nap room, union reps speculate that highly paid doctors might have access some perk denied the rank and file. Maybe it'll become a bargaining chip in the next round of negotiations.

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