Monday, May 24, 2010

Smile on your brother: Musings on labour woes in the blood system

The idea for this month's blog came from the latest labour relations difficulties facing North America's blood suppliers. The title derives from the lyrics of a 1960s song recorded by many, Get Together.

USA - American Red Cross [ARC]


This blog uses the above labour conflicts to offer musings on the role of trust among TM health professionals. Because the underlying issue in any management / employee negotiation relates to trust, I will not discuss the specifics of the news reports. Besides, without in-depth knowledge of what is actually happening, analysis would be folly.
Many good friends are either staunchly pro- or anti-union health professionals. I know from experience that discussing union issues, like religion and politics, is sure to lead to passionate disagreements fueled by anecdotes and emotion, not objective, evidence-based logic, and may result in hard feelings. I'm hoping not to wander into that morass as the blog's narrative unfolds.
As background, to my knowledge, Canada's blood system, both blood suppliers and hospital-based transfusion services, are mostly unionized. Unionized workers usually include laboratory technologists, lab assistants, and nurses, and a diverse group of other staff, e.g., clerical, IT, lab scientists, maintenance, etc.
Some employees, e.g., TS laboratory managers and blood centre management positions, may be "out of scope" (not included in union contracts).
Practical implications of being out-of-scope include the
  • ability to negotiate salaries and benefits directly with employers (and to keep them private from co-workers);
  • subtle promotion of a them-versus-us mentality;
  • ability of employers to fire you without the hassle of a union grievance.
As well, for non-union health professionals at senior levels, including dismissal terms in personal contracts, and threats of legal action for wrongful dismissal, may result in generous, golden handshakes for staff such as TS and blood centre medical directors.
Many of the news items referenced in this blog involve contract negotiations. From my experience observing Canada's blood system, frequently workers do not trust employers / management to do the right thing for employees, patients, and the public at large. The worker view is often that management has a hidden agenda, typically to save money, even at the expense of safety.
Conversely, it's not that rare for employers / management to regard unions negatively, and by extension to view their members as overpaid and more or less lazy, with unions leading to unwarranted, costly job perks and promotion of the most senior rather than the most competent staff. Management seldom voices such opinions publicly and would deny them if asked, but these viewpoints exist nonetheless.
Indeed, these perspectives reflect public opinion, with proponents on both side of the union issue.
The unproductive, adversarial mentality in labour negotiations seems relatively common everywhere despite major progress in labour relations worldwide during the 20th C.
The sad fact is, that with contract negotiations, a lack of mutual trust is common. When discussions reach an impasse, each side often sees the other as self-serving and sometimes in even more negative terms.
Tidbit: In 2007, the percentage of employees that were members of a trade union (Source: OECD - Union density 1960 - 2007) included:
  • Australia: 10% (2006)
  • Canada: 29.4%
  • Norway: 53.7%
  • Sweden: 70.8%
  • UK: 28%
  • USA: 11.6%
These statistics likely do not include the employees such as physicians and university professors who are not members of a union, per se, but do belong to professional associations that act as unions by negotiating contracts and benefits.
When is a union not a union? When it calls itself a professional association. When working at the University of Alberta I was in the Association of Academic Staff, which negotiated salaries and benefits for professors. The Association's activities approximate that of a trade union.
In Canada, health care is a provincial jurisdiction and provincial medical associations negotiate physician fees that are binding for insured services.
Despite their loftier broader goals and objectives, Canadian provincial medical associations perform some of the same functions as unions. Yet unions may be disdained by some professionals partly because of their origin as trade unions, with "trades" somehow being more lowly than professions.
For interest, Norwegian and Swedish physicians have no problem in identifying their medical associations as unions. Many of their physicians are state employees, as are physicians in many other European countries.
To my knowledge, Canada's transfusion medicine physicians (hematologists, hematopathologists, pathologists) who work for transfusion services and blood suppliers are usually salaried employees, although they often have multiple appointments that earn additional salary. In essence, they too belong to professional associations that function partly as trade unions.
People who work as part of any health care team must trust each other's competence, trust that each will to do the best job possible, maintain a high level of quality care, and put the patient first. There are checks and balances in the TM system, e.g., audits of blood transfusion requests, error management programs, etc., but the system would not function without trust in a colleague's motivation and competence. The first instinct of health professionals is to trust each other to maintain high practice standards, unless shown otherwise. For example:
  • When talking to a nurse on the ward who reports a possible transfusion reaction or to a physician in the ER who requests unmatched RBC, do lab technologists routinely think, "That lazy bum is so self-serving"?
  • When discussing follow-up treatment of patients suffering from transfusion complications with nurses, or holding a staff meeting with laboratory staff to plan implementation of an new LIS, do TS medical directors routinely think, "These nurses / techs deserve less pay and fewer benefits"?
  • When management staff from national blood suppliers consult with blood centre medical directors across the country, does "head office" routinely think, "These MDs don't have patient safety at heart. Their attitude is deplorable."?
Do management staff who are not members of a health profession (whether representing health regions, hospitals, blood suppliers, or governments) often think such thoughts about members of the TM team?
I think not. The many technologists, nurses, and physicians that I have known over a lifetime in Canada's blood system are dedicated to patient safety and trust each other to provide the highest quality care possible.
How is it that trust seems to evaporate with labour negotiations?
In the mid-90s in Alberta, health care restructuring caused major job losses in the laboratory sector. One result was the creation of Calgary Laboratory Services* (CLS), a private lab that assumed 100% of clinical lab services in Calgary, one of the province's two major cities.
* CLS is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Alberta Health Services (organization responsible for providing publicly funded hospital and other health care in Alberta)
The case study below describes how a union (HSAA) and private-sector lab (CLS) cooperated under extremely traumatic circumstances. It paints a rosy picture of what's possible. I have no idea how closely it conforms to reality but there may be some lessons here.
All this lack of trust and conflict reminds me of a song from the 1960s:
As the song's lyrics go,

C'mon people now, Smile on your brother Ev'rybody get together, Try and love one another right now

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