THE GOVERNMENT OF NEW BRUNSWICK HAS DECIDED TO TRUST THE EXPERTS. It will continue to work with public service workers to improve hospital food and cleaning services. It will not contract out their work to a private company.
The June 18 decision was a major victory for unions and citizen activists in New Brunswick anxious to preserve public services.
The Liberals wanted to sell off the publicly-owned food and cleaning services to the multi-national Sudexo. A broad coalition objected. Union members, everyday citizens, health professionals, economists came out in support of public healthcare, rather than private interests
New Brunswick farmers brought it all back home: “It is almost a given that large corporations like Sodexo do not deal with local farmers,” said Rébeka Frazer-Chiasson, a member of the National Farmer’s Union board in New Brunswick. “If Sodexo partners with the Liberal government to provide hospital food services, little New Brunswick food will find its way onto the trays of patients.”
Overall, broad popular opposition focused on the belief the privatization would be all pain and no gain. Critics believed the deal would result in a sharp decline in the quality of services in the hospitals, would callously steal jobs from 280 experienced and dependable workers and yet would not reduce the cost of government in any significant way.
Government, union co-operation
The government decision came as a result of the December 2017 formation of the Task Force on Food, Environment and Portering Services—a rare collaboration between government and the union representing the threatened workers.
The mandate of the task force was to identify the current gaps and opportunities with respect to the provision of food, environmental and portering services within the regional health authorities. What they found was that keeping these services public would allow them to run more effectively.
Norma Robinson, president of CUPE Local 1252, pointed out that if the government had spent time speaking to workers rather than corporate executives from Sudexo, they would have realized much sooner that keeping the services public was the best solution.
“When you speak with frontline staff, you get the clear picture of what is needed to make those changes within the public system, which is exactly what the task force was able to prove to the government,” said Robinson.
The unions will now work with the government and regional health authorities to draft a plan to move forward. However, unlike the unaccountable corporate decision-making process that would have taken place if Sudexo was in charge, the public will have a voice in these discussions through the joint committee.
“We will be the watchdogs over this. We will be the people on this watching to ensure that this goes forward as predicted, and we will deal with things as they come up,” stated Robinson.
Broader privatization drive
The unions have been leading a broader campaign against the Liberal government’s plans to privatize other areas of healthcare. At the beginning of the year, the government handed a ten-year contract to Medavie, a private company, to manage the province’s medical home care program. Susie Proulx-Daigle, president of the New Brunswick Union/NUPGE, said at the time, “The government has stated this move will not save money. It admits the program is working very well as is, so the question is why do this at all?”
New Brunswickers agreed. A protest of several hundred took place last December against the deal, and petitions were organized and meetings held to oppose it.
The fact that the government refused to make details of the contract with Medavie public until it was signed caused particular anger. It demonstrated the lack of control citizens have when public services are hived off to profit-making business interests. Protesters also pointed to the problems experienced by the province’s ambulance service, after it was taken over by Medavie, as an additional reminder of the perils of privatization.
The New Brunswick Health Coalition, a public advocacy group, produced a report detailing the government’s privatization plans and demonstrating how maintaining public ownership in healthcare will ensure more efficiency and better services. The report noted that a national pharmacare program would save New Brunswick $180 million annually, called for the extramural program to remain in public hands, and urged an end to plans to contract out ancillary services within hospitals.
“Privatization schemes have led to negative health outcomes for patients and poor working conditions for healthcare workers,” noted the report. “The negative consequences of privatization are disproportionately borne by seniors, women, and minority groups. Privatization also poses a threat to New Brunswickers being able to receive healthcare in the official language of their choice.”
Victory points the way forward
The positive news that the government has abandoned its privatization plans for food and cleaning services is a first step in the fight to defend public services in the province. More battles undoubtedly lie ahead.
The unions’ success in mobilizing public support behind the campaign to keep food and cleaning services public provides a powerful example of how labour-led campaigns can help defend public services and protect the interests of people in New Brunswick and across the country.
Following the example of CUPE 1252 will go a long way to achieving an efficient, high-quality public healthcare system across the province.
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