Manitoba nurses have voted resoundingly in favour of a strike, but the union still hopes to reach a deal at the bargaining table.
Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said the union could wait until the end of the month to see if the employer will voluntarily agree to arbitration before deciding whether to call a strike.
"We're still hoping that they will change their mind and agree to that," Jackson said.
If a strike occurs, it's expected to be called by July. A strike won't affect patient care, Jackson promised. Nurses are essential workers and they would have to maintain essential duties, even if rotating job action meant nurses stopped answering phones or completing certain paperwork — "i.e. they may not be answering the phone that day or they may not be transcribing doctors' orders," Jackson said.
Nurses across the province voted 98 per cent in favour of a strike. The results were released Thursday morning after four days of voting and 11,954 votes cast — an overwhelming voter turnout among the union's 12,000 members.
Nurses have been without a contract for four years, and bargaining toward a new collective agreement began in October, but Jackson said the employer hasn't agreed to arbitration. Under Manitoba's labour laws, a 60-day strike could force both sides into arbitration, but new legislation expected to be debated this fall seeks to change that rule. That's why the strike vote had to happen now, Jackson said.
"If we do go into a strike action, it will be very low-key. It will be a minimal, minimal disruption to patient care. It will simply be a way to get us through the 60 days to trigger interest arbitration," Jackson said.
After hearing the results of the strike vote, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said he didn't think a strike would happen.
"It won't come to that, I don't believe. I don't think that the nurses want that to happen, but that being said, I want to see the negotiations continue."
He said he has "tremendous respect for the nursing profession and the nurses have done amazing work throughout this pandemic. That being said, negotiations are negotiations. They have to happen, they're never pretty and they're not going to happen in the media."
Jackson said the union wants to avoid a strike and hopes the employers will agree to arbitration to hammer out a contract that includes fair compensation and addresses the need to recruit and retain more nurses amid significant vacancy rates.
In a statement, acting provincial health minister Kelvin Goertzen urged the parties to keep bargaining, saying no one wants a nursing strike in the middle of a pandemic.
"Government isn’t the employer, but all of our nurses should have the certainty and comfort of a new, fair, long-term deal. They deserve that and we want that. With competitive compensation increases and retroactive payments, additional compensation packages to support nurses most severely impacted by COVID-19 surges, and with other general shift premiums. We also want significant recruitment and retention initiatives that improve overall work-life balance for our dedicated nurses."
The NDP and Liberals expressed support for nurses. In March, the NDP opted to delay Bill 16, which includes amendments that would remove the post-strike arbitration requirement in the Labour Relations Act.
"The government forced health-care workers, forced nurses to have to strike by their mistreatment throughout this pandemic and before this pandemic," said NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont described the government's treatment of nurses as "absolutely disgraceful."
"Nurses have been pushed beyond the breaking point; there's a reason we have a shortage of so many nurses and they've been quitting, because they cannot work safely," he said.
— With files from Danielle Da Silva
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.