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The Manitoba nurses' strike.

Manitoba nurses returned to work February 1, 1991 after 31 days -- the longest nurses' strike in Canadian history. Manitoba nurses struck for the same reasons their sisters in Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia struck four times since 1988. They struck for better wages, more power, and better working conditions.

The striking union, the Manitoba Nurses Union, is the renamed Manitoba Organization of Nurses' Associations (MONA), formed in 1975; after two previous votes, nurses passed the name change in April 1990. A total of 80 per cent of Manitoba's nurses are in unions, the highest percentage in Canada. The MNU represents 10,500 nurses employed in 104 provincially-funded hospitals and personal care homes. Membership is 97 per cent female; the MNU is a women's union.

While the union's membership consists entirely of nurses and is mainly women, it is not monolithic. The membership includes 3,000 Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN's) and 7,500 Registered Nurses (RN's). Working conditions vary considerably. Two thirds of MNU mebers work in Winnipeg in settings ranging from large, multi-purpose hospitals to smaller, highly specialized facilities. The other third is scattered across rural Manitoba and the North, in small farming communities, mining communities, and the Port of Churchill.

Attitudes among rural members differ from those of urban members. This historical urban-rural split the exposed the union to government divide-and-conquer tactics which have alienated nurses from government. The solidarity reflected in the union's April 1990 name change signified that discontent was stronger than internal and nurses were ready to overcome this split.


MNU head Vera Chernecki described the discontent in a May 1990 interview:

"A critical issue is the frustration and discontent of nurses with the deterioration in working conditions. This, in turn, has led to a deterioration in the quality of patient care... Workloads have been increasing as a result of the increasing severity of illness of patients, but funding and staffing have not kept pace. As well, there have been increases in paperwork and non-nursing functions that must be performed by nurses.

"There is also a belief on the part of our members that our work isn't valued. We have no say in decision-making related to health care issues, and we receive no recognition for the importance of our contribution to health care."

The MNU had previously raised these issues in submissions to the government, calling for direct nurse input into the funding practices of the Manitoba Health Services Commission; the creation of elected advisory committees of nurses with access to hospital boards, and the election of nurses to hospital boards. Chernecki said in May 1990 that proposed nurse input into decision-making had met with a great deal of resistance from hospital managers and administrators:

"We have had the issue of input into decision-making processes on the table previously. It will be on the table again this time. It is something our members needs; it is something they want."

Ms Chernecki cited a long list of other matters on which nurses wanted input and action. They included abuse of nurses by patients, co-workers, physicians and patient's families; an increasing incidence of back injuries due to insufficient staff and mechanical support in lifting patients; threats to health and safety resulting from communicable diseases, chemical hazards and stress; technological change and the drive for greater specialization; and the lack of opportunity for nurses to upgrade their qualifications.

Nurses wanted more power, improved working conditions, better wages. But the union knew these would not come without struggle.

The negotiations

When the MNU went into the 1990 negotiations, it presented proposals addressing its members' major concerns -- joint trusteeship of pension plans, representation on hospital boards, and the creation of nursing advisory committees with a mandate to address issues concerning patient care.

The MNU sought an immediate 30 per cent wage increase, adjustments in shift differentials, payments to nurses on call, and premiums for nursing supervisors. As justification for a significant wage increase, the MNU argued that, under the previous three-year agreement, Manitoba starting and maximum hourly wage rates of $14.70 and $17.30 had fallen below wage rates in all but two other provinces.

Aligned against the nurses were the Manitoba Health Organization, Inc. (MHO), the bargaining agent for health care employers, and the Manitoba government. Although the government is not present at the bargaining table, it sets the funds available to the MHO for wage settlements. When conflict arises in the bargaining process, the government figures prominently in the propaganda wars.

The collective agreement would expire at midnight December 31, 1990. In the absence of progress in negotations, the MNU called for a strike vote December 15. The previous day, Minister of Finance Clayton Manness announced that the overall increase in the public sector wage bill would be held to 3 per cent. Nurses would get more -- at the expense of other public sector workers, who would take less -- perhaps nothing at all.
   Wage Positions at Beginning of Strike
                    MHO             MNU
Term of Agreement   3 years         2 years
Jan. 1, 1991        5.5% (RNs)      12% for all
                                    0% for LPNs
April 1, 1991                       6% for all
July 1, 1991        3.3% for RNs
                    With 5+ years
Jan. 1, 1992        4% for all      9% for all
Jan. 1, 1993        5% for all
(Source, The Winnipeg Free Press, January 3, 1991.)

Vera Chernecki denounced the government's action as a transparent attempt to drive a wedge between the MNU and other public sector unions. She told Winnipeg Free Press reporters December 15: "Nurses are being set up by the provincial government as scapegoats for its regressive stand at public sector negotiations."

Premier Gary Filmon confirmed Chernecki's analysis of the government's position, telling reporters, "...other public-sector unions...should be willing to take less to improve the lot for nurses." He said, if the Manitoba Government Employees Association (MGEA) believes its demands are more important than those of nurses, that should be discussed in public.

The results of the strike vote were announced December 17 -- 19 per cent of the 75 per cent of nurses who voted endorsed strike action. The union set a strike dealine for 7 a.m., the morning of January 1, 1991.

The MHO made a concrete wage offer on December 17, but this offer fell far below what the nurses wanted. Moreover, the MHO insisted that LPNs not get any increase in the first year of a proposed three-year agreement, on the grounds that they were already the highest paid LPNs in Canada. The MNU saw the differential treatment of LPNs as an attempt by the MHO to undermine union solidarity.

On New Year's Day, the nurses walked off the job. Hospitals continued to function -- the MNU had negotiated agreements to provide essential services in 76 of the 89 facilities affected. In four rural facilities, nurses voted to remain on the job. In others, basic services were maintained, either by nurses who defied the strike, or by replacement nurses brought in from elewhere. Only two hospitals closed down completely.

The essential services agreements complicated many strike activities. Nurses had to both organize the strike and manage the essential services agreements. Most nurses performing essential services turned their pay over to the union and took picket duty compensation. This policy enhanced solidarity and fueled the strike fund.

But hospital administrations exploited the agreements. They tried to discredit nurses, either by claiming they weren't living up to the terms of the agreement, or by attempting to get essential service nurses to do more than required. These practices led to numerous disputes, and, in turn, to frequent meetings. At the Brandon General Hospital, nurses were angered to the point of cancelling the agreement. The dispute in Brandon was resolved when the nurses took control of the process.

Once the strike was underway, positions on wages were clarified (see chart, page 21). The MHO rolled in already committed pay equity adjustments, and presented their proposal as representing 20 per cent over three years. The MNU position was 27 per cent over two years.

Support for the nurses was substantial. A survey of 400 Manitobans, conducted by Viewpoint Research Ltd. reveals that 60 per cent blamed the government and the MHO for the strike, while 9 per cent blamed the nurses. There were statements of support from leaders of trade unions and popular organizations.

Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, suggested there were many similarities between the demands of the striking nurses and those of native people: "It has to do with self-determination and responsect, fairness and equity. We understand where they're coming from. Native people are among the biggest users of health care in Canada." (The Winnipeg Free Press, January 7, 1991.)

Members of unions and other organizations contributed money and food, organized solidarity socials, and joined nurses on the picket lines. In Winnipeg, the strike sparked the formation of CHOICES, a broadly based organization set up to oppose the government's fiscal policy and cutbacks in social programs.

It soon became evident the government would not yield on money. The weather on the picket lines was brutally cold. Nurses worried that the government would wait for a patient to die, then use that to win public support and legislate them back to work. But the membership remained solid.

On January 9, 4,500 MNU members and supporters from other unions rallied at the Winnipeg Convention Centre. They marched on the legislature to present their demands to Premier Filmon. When Minister of Health Don Orchard appeared in Filmon's stead, the demonstrators turned on their heels and marched back to the Convetion Centre.

The MHO made an interim offer in mid-January; the MNU recommended rejection. When the vote was taken January 17, the nurses voted overwhelmingly to turn their thumbs down -- 81 per cent voted no.

Talks resumed January 25. Government tactics were taking their toll, eroding public support and sapping nurses' morale. The government claimed the MNU's demands would jeopardize the health-care system; they announced pending transfers of patients to other provinces for essential surgery; they attacked the integrity of the MNU leadership. Nurses on the line were broke and tired; they feared they had little chance of getting anything more out of the Filmon government.

A tentative settlement was announced January 29. The MNU did not take a position on the package; the members would decide in a secret ballot. The nurses accepted the proposal, with only 61 per cent in favor. But at many hospitals the vote was even closer. At the Brandon General Hospital, the margin was 229 to 212. At nine hospitals, the package was universally rejected. Nurses at three of these hospitals -- Winnipeg's St. Amant Centre, Churchill, and Thompson general hospitals -- remained on strike, seeking concessions relevant to their particular situations. But they too went back to work.

The settlement

The terms of the agreement are less than the nurses wanted. But the package they accepted is better than the package they rejected January 17.

The agreement provides RNs a total wage increase of about 13 per cent over its two-year term. LPNs got 10 per cent over the two years. It also provides for the equalization of wage rates in non-pay equity facilites, and includes an adjustment in the RN pay classification structure, which raises the start rate for RNs by an additional 7 per cent. These wage adjustments will raise the start rate of Manitoba nurses to fourth in Canada, the maximum rate to fifth place by January 1, 1992.

The agreement also includes the creation of nursing advisory committees. The committee's mandate covers all matters relating to workload, staffing, nursing practices and functions, and the physical planning and layout of facilities. Moreover, an elaborate structure provides for independent assessment of committee recommendations, and guarantees hospitals boards will be forced to deal with them. To get MHO to agree to the formation of advisory committees, the MNU withdrew its demand for direct representation on hospital boards.

As well, nurses at the Health Sciences Centre, the Grace Hospital, and the Cancer Centre won joint trusteeship of their pension plans. The nurses covered under the MHO-run plan will have to wait for a future round of negoations to get this right.

The aftermath

The MHO strategy in negotiations was to contain the nurses demands for power and for substantive input into decision-making in health-care facilities, and to yield on the issue of nursing advisory committees. Nurses are now concerned, either that the MHO might try to restrict the activities of the committees, or that hospital boards will reject committee recommendations.

But these are short-term concerns. Results over the longer haul may be quite different. This strike was important for nurses. Many were politicized by it. Issues related to power and control in the health-care system were clarified. Nurses learned their only real allies are people in other unions, and in organizations struggling to advance the rights of women, aboriginal peoples and the poor. They also discovered they have the solidarity and strength to carry out a discplined and effective strike.

Nurses are back at work, but the struggle continues. Nurses in Brandon are talking about working to rule -- refusing to do non-nurse tasks, refusing to give up their coffee breaks and similar entitlements. Should they go ahead, employers will face serious problems in maintaining services.

Nurses are also talking about using nursing advisory committees to force hospital boards to deal with their concerns. If the committees fail, health-care administrations will likely be swamped with complaints, grievances and other forms of resistance. A failure by employers to accommodate nurses' needs for more power in the system may very well set the stage for another confrontation in 1992.

Errol Black teaches economics at Brandon University.
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Title Annotation:includes nurses' letters
Author:Black, Errol
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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