Under the crunch of heavy workloads, mandated overtime and pandemic stress, Manitoba nurses are taking a strike vote this weekend after months of negotiations failed to secure a contract.
"We finally got to the bargaining table with employers in October of 2020. We’ve had 25-plus session days of bargaining and progress has been extremely slow," said Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson.
"We’re really not as hopeful as we were that we’re going to be able to negotiate a collective agreement."
Their collective agreement expired more than four years ago; negotiations began in earnest in the fall after a series of run-off votes to consolidate health-care bargaining units. Jackson said the union has been asking the province to voluntarily move to interest arbitration, adding they would agree not to trigger that option until Sept. 1, but they received "a hard no."
In any event, interest arbitration would be triggered after a 60-day strike.
"Nurses believe that is the only way we’re going to get a fair deal that addresses our issues with retention and recruitment with the nursing shortage," Jackson said. "I’m hoping the strike vote will make this government rethink its position."
Should the strike vote pass — 12,000 nurses begin casting ballots Sunday — and a strike be called, Jackson said essential COVID-19 care wouldn't be affected.
"The last thing nurses in this province want to do is disrupt patient care or cause any concern from patients, families or the public," said Jackson.
"We will never ever pull nurses out of an ICU unit where they have patients. We will never stop people from swabbing or giving vaccinations or doing contact tracing — that’s not what we’re about."
A strike would involve rotating work-to-rule actions in certain units on a daily basis.
"We all go to work like we normally do…we do a rotating job action that doesn’t disrupt patient care. Maybe not doing non-essential functions for one day at one site or one unit."
A nurse at Health Sciences Centre told the Free Press: "We won’t be mobilizing patients, answering call lights, answering the phone, taking verbal orders from doctors. (It'll be) bare minimum paperwork."
While the province has not locked in wage freezes, and plans to offer competitive compensation, certain proposals, including nurse redeployment, are contentious, said Jackson.
Pandemic health care stress and the nursing shortage in Winnipeg and across the province have prompted nurses to be redeployed to unfamiliar units or regions. Jackson said the province wants to include these 'float pools' in the contract, despite nurses’ complaints.
While some amount of redeployment is normal, Jackson said months-long redeployment, potentially to different regions, is another matter.
"This is really worrisome for nurses because they don’t want to be picked up and moved around on a whim," she said.
Jackson said the union wants to ensure the new contract will help retain and recruit nurses. The union is trying to avoid its members working long, mandated overtime with crippling patient loads and lack of time off, Jackson said.
"It’s not all compensation. It’s about being able to go to work, have a patient load that you can manage and provide safe, quality patient care for," she said.
"We’re all about making sure that we have enough nurses to sustain our health-care system."
Acting health minister Kevin Goertzen said "nobody wants any kind of strike action, at any time, but especially during the pandemic" and said bargaining should continue. He noted arbitration can resolve financial concerns but "rarely deal with issues of operation."
"In nursing, this includes things like ensuring nurses are in the place they are needed most by patients to provide the incredible care we know nurses give," Goertzen said. "The need for this flexibility has been known a long time but has been made even clearer during the pandemic."
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.