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Paramedics end two-week administrative strike

Union unanimously endorses tentative deal to its members

Quebec’s paramedic workers ended their two-and-a-half week symbolic strike last Friday. A tentative agreement was reached after three days of intense negotiations between Quebec’s Minister of Health and Social Services, Dr. Réjean Hébert, and negotiators for the 2,500 paramedical employees affiliated with labour federation Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN).

Quebec’s paramedics have been without a contract since March 2010.

The agreement, which was announced by Hébert last Thursday, still needs to be ratified by individual union members.

A resounding 71 per cent of the union’s members voted down a previous tentative agreement between the CSN and the province in October 2012, but Jeff Begley, president of the Federation of Health and Social Services of the CSN, told The Daily that he expects a different outcome this time.

“The delegates received the information on the agreement and unanimously decided to recommend it to the members,” Begley said.
Regional general assemblies of CSN members started across the province on Tuesday. “We expect that in the next two weeks the agreement will be ratified, and signed in the days that follow,” Begley said.

The strike, which started on December 24, was the first legal strike ever undertaken by the paramedics.

Paramedical services are deemed to be an essential service under the Essential Services Act, which meant that strikers were legally responsible for providing 100 per cent of their normal services. Instead of reducing emergency ambulance services, the strike was administrative, with paramedics refusing to completely fill out insurance forms.

“When you call an ambulance, somebody pays for it – either your insurance, or Quebec auto insurance, or you personally. There are papers that have to be filled out so that whoever has to be billed, can be billed. Those are the kinds of papers that weren’t completely filled out,” Begley told The Daily.

The CBC reported that paramedics had stopped telling hospitals when non-urgent cases were brought in, making work harder for their emergency room staff. Apparently, this was especially tough during the end of December, when there were an abnormally large number of patients suffering from the seasonal flu.

However, a representative from the McGill University Health Centre, which runs six teaching hospitals in the Montreal region, including the Montreal General Hospital, told The Daily that patient care was unaffected by the strike.

The Essential Services Act meant extra work for the striking ambulance technicians, since complaints about a diminishment of service from the public could have meant fines for the union. “That means that we have to have teams that, even though they aren’t working, they have to make sure that everything is running smoothly. That is a lot of work,” Begley said.

In an attempt to make the strike visible to members of the public, ambulances were decorated with colourful signs that read: “En Grève” – “on strike” in French.

The union’s strike tactic, which included demonstrations throughout the province, seemed to speed up negotiations, which have been ongoing since February 2011. “We did notice since the beginning of the strike that the government has been feeling more and more pressured to come to an agreement,” Begley said.

In a press release, Hébert said that he was proud that an agreement, satisfactory to all parties, was found. “Finding common ground was a big challenge,” he added.

The new collective agreement, if ratified, will reduce the number of pay scales from 16 to 14, allowing paramedics to reach the top of pay scale two years earlier. This is still far from parity with other provinces, which the union was initially seeking, where it takes on average five years to reach the maximum pay scale.

The paramedic’s previous contract also stipulated that paramedics were not being paid extra for the first half-hour of overtime. “This was a rather strange clause,” Begley said, “from now on – at the end of the regular eight-hour day if you have to stay and work longer, you are paid time-and-a-half.”

Changes have also been made to the pension plan, where accrued benefits have been increased from 0.8 per cent of a paramedic’s salary per year to 0.85 per cent per year.

The new agreement, if ratified, will be up for renegotiation in 2015