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Dix staying the course on labour policy, focusing on ‘one practical step at a time’

B.C. NDP Leader and Leader of the Opposition Adrian Dix answers questions from The Globe and Mail's editorial board on Oct. 16, 2012, in Toronto.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

He vowed to fight the pending layoffs of 90 union staff at the George Derby veterans' care home in Burnaby, and he pledged to wipe out the last remnants of the Liberal government's Bill 29, which savaged union contracts in the hospital sector.

But otherwise, in a return to the friendly confines of a union audience after several recent, high-profile forays before a pro-business crowd, NDP Leader Adrian Dix stuck to the same safe and narrow path he has been following for months.

Although Mr. Dix was given a standing ovation before and after his speech Monday to hundreds of delegates at the biennial convention of the Hospital Employees Union, he promised no big changes to labour legislation nor major reform of the health-care system, should the NDP form government.

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Instead, an NDP administration would proceed with needed changes "one practical step at a time," said Mr. Dix, as delegates listened quietly to his prudent message.

Afterwards, Mr. Dix, whose party has a wide lead over the governing Liberals in public-opinion polls, said he believes audiences, whether business or labour, want to hear the hard truth, rather than platitudes, promises that can't be kept and negative, personal attacks. The reality is that the Liberals have left the financial cupboard bare, he said, and further health-care funding problems are likely when Ottawa reduces transfer payments to the provinces in 2014.

"For anyone to say that is not a challenge is not being straightforward with people," Mr. Dix said. "There are some things we want to do, but which we won't be able to afford in the first four years of our mandate … and I'm giving people the straight goods."

The NDP Leader said he doesn't believe in catering his message to please those listening. "When I went to the Vancouver Board of Trade, I didn't shy away from issues of taxation, and here I didn't shy away from the need to work with business," he said.

In fact, he added, talking to a sympathetic crowd such as the HEU convention is actually more of a challenge, since many delegates are friends and expectations are naturally higher.

Earlier, Mr. Dix said he was distressed that 90 members of the HEU at the George Derby Centre have been told they will be laid off, effective next April 30. They are to be replaced by contract employees, a move that operators of the non-profit care home say will save money.

"Some of those employees have been there 30 years and more," Mr. Dix said, noting that the layoffs are to take effect just a few weeks before the provincial election.

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"I don't know about you, but I don't think we should let that stand," he said, to loud applause.

Mr. Dix also made a strong committment to wipe out the sections of Bill 29 that have not already been overturned by the Surpeme Court of Canada. The legislation, passed early in the first term for former premier Gordon Campbell, erased contracting-out protection in HEU contracts. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court found much of Bill 29 illegal, since the government failed to engange in meaningful collective bargaining with the union.

However, a section that eliminates union successorship rights when operations change hands is still on the books. One of the NDP's first acts in its first session, should the party be elected, will be to get rid "of what's left of Bill 29," Mr. Dix declared. "Bill 29 was bad for the health-care system, bad for seniors and bad for health-care workers."

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