During the 18-day illegal nurses’ strike in Alberta, a committee met each morning at the Calgary Foothills Hospital to make life-anddeath decisions. The strike, which began on Jan. 25, forced the 1,000-bed hospital to reduce surgery to 13 operations each day from roughly 100. The hospital performed emergency operations as usual but it postponed urgent surgery for more than 200 patients. “These are war conditions,” said Dr. Robert McMurtry, Foothills’ head of surgery, during the walkout. By the time the nurses reached an agreement with the Alberta Hospitals Association and voted 5,237 to 1,118 on Feb. 12 to return to work, one hospital had transferred patients to another province because it could not care for them, and another was investigating whether or not certain deaths occurred because patients did not receive proper treatment.
The strike had quickly reduced hospitals to providing only emergency care. But by this week, with the Olympic Winter Games in full swing, fully staffed hospitals were expected to be treating the backlog of surgery and readmitting patients.
The walkout by nurses was, they said, as much an angry statement against Alberta’s restrictive labor laws as it was a bargaining tool for better wages and increased benefits. Nurses—like firefighters, police and almost all public servants—are prohibited by Alberta law from striking. But on Jan. 25, after three months of negotiations, the 11,400-member United Nurses of Alberta braved -30°C weather and criminal charges as they began to picket hospitals, claiming that not having the right to strike had prevented them from reaching an agreement. As the strike dragged on, critics warned that the government should re-examine the labor laws. Said Donald Macgregor, president of the Alberta Hospital Association: “When a law results in this much frustration developing in a particular group, the legislature should consider some changes. I think the law worked against the interests of everybody involved.” Clearly, the strike had its gravest repercussions for seriously ill people in Alberta. Just hours before the ten-
tative agreement was reached on Thursday evening, the Calgary General Hospital flew three critically ill patients to two hospitals in British Columbia after the union refused to staff the intensive-care unit. The president of Foothills Hospital, Ralph Coombs, is investigating seven deaths “which, under normal circumstances, may have been preventable.”
Ultimately, pressure from the provincial government, eager to host the Olympics without an unsettling labor dispute clouding the event, helped bring
about the settlement. Premier Don Getty intervened on Thursday when he learned that all the issues had been settled except for one: the hospital association was demanding the right to halt automatic union dues deductions from nurses’ paychecks for six months, which is possible under the Labor Relations Act—a move that could have bankrupted the union. Getty asked Hospitals Minister Marvin Moore to instruct the association—which negotiates on behalf of the hospitals, which are funded by the government—to expedite an agreement. That evening the two sides reached a tentative settlement, which gave the nurses wage increases of up to 10.9 per cent over 27 months and improved some benefits. The average nurse’s salary would move to $30,000 per year.
At the last moment the association withdrew an amnesty clause that
would have allowed more than 80 nurses, who had been fired for walking out, to return to work. Civil contempt charges against 62 individual nurses resulted in fines ranging from $250 to $500 for disobeying back-to-work legislation. The union paid a $250,000 fine for a criminal contempt conviction and is fighting a second charge. But it said that it wanted the amnesty clause back before a ratification vote this week.
While the nurses claimed the settlement was a victory, many were also bitter that they had had to stage an illegal walkout to win a contract. In turn, government members complained that the nurses had not spoken out
about their problems with the health care system. “We weren’t as politically active as we should have been,” said Kathy James, president of the union local at Foothills Hospital. She said that many locals were already planning committees that would report nurses’ concerns. “We still have empty hospitals; they’re still misspending the money in the health care system,” said James. “From now on we aren’t going to wait for negotiations to come around before we talk about these things.” While Olympic officials—who had feared a health crisis would spoil their Games—applauded the nurses’ return last week, some health professionals predicted that the labor peace might not outlast the goodwill engendered by the Games.
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