CANADA

QUEBEC SHOWDOWN

MILITANT NURSES TAKE ADVANTAGE OF AN ELECTION CAMPAIGN TO PRESS THEIR DEMANDS WITH A STRIKE

MICHAEL ROSE September 18 1989
CANADA

QUEBEC SHOWDOWN

MILITANT NURSES TAKE ADVANTAGE OF AN ELECTION CAMPAIGN TO PRESS THEIR DEMANDS WITH A STRIKE

MICHAEL ROSE September 18 1989

QUEBEC SHOWDOWN

CANADA

MILITANT NURSES TAKE ADVANTAGE OF AN ELECTION CAMPAIGN TO PRESS THEIR DEMANDS WITH A STRIKE

The shrill blasts from the car horns of passing motorists shattered the customary quiet around Montreal’s stately Royal Victoria Hospital. It was a scene repeated in hospital zones throughout Quebec last week, as drivers responded to picket signs asking for a show of support for 40,000 unionized nurses who went on an illegal strike on Sept. 5. For nurse Danielle Schryer, 29, who waved and cheered every time another horn honked, the noisy display was welcome encouragement. Said Schryer, who has worked as a nurse for seven years: “I think people are on our side in this.” But for many patients—and for Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s unexpectedly troubled election campaign—the raucous din was clearly unwelcome.

Despite Schryer’s confident assessment, the strikers, who make up most of the nursing force in the province, had taken a risky gamble in their showdown with the government. The province’s essential-services law, Bill 160, provides stiff penalties for lawbreakers: fines of as much as $100 a day for individuals, in addition to loss of pay; $25,000 a day for union leaders; and the further possibility of jail terms of up to one year as a result of contempt-of-court charges. And Bourassa was clearly in no mood to compromise. Declared the premier: “If we reward civil disobedience with increases, it will open the door to a dangerous precedent.” Indeed, by the week’s end, the Quebec government had charged several strike leaders with contempt of court and imposed lesser—although still stiff—penalties on other striking nurses. Declared Treasury Board president Daniel Johnson: “Amnesty is totally excluded.”

Within hours of Johnson’s announcement, union leaders abruptly cut $23 million from earlier wage demands that would have totalled $850 million over the next three years. Said nurses’ federation president Diane Lavallée: “We wanted to show that we are ready to negotiate.” But government spokesmen rejected talks while the illegal strike continued, and nurses’ leaders vowed to stay off the job until the government agreed to negotiate their contract demands. Caught in the middle of the dispute were patients in Quebec’s already-overtaxed hospital system. By the end of last week, more than 5,500 hospital beds had been temporarily closed in approximately 400 strike-bound institutions, and all but emergency surgery was cancelled. Hundreds of patients were sent home.

The increasingly bitter strike brought to a head a long-standing dispute between the Quebec government and its nurses, whose last contract expired on Dec. 31, 1988. Nurses rejected a tentative settlement in July that would have raised their salaries by more than 18 per cent within 36 months—but that would have given them only four per cent immediately. In its place, they insisted last week that salaries must rise by an average of 10 per cent at once, with additional raises

throughout the life of the contract pegged to increases in the cost of living. The nurses’ demands are fuelled by their relatively low pay compared with nurses’ elsewhere in Canada. Salaries for starting nurses are lower only in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. And for a Quebec nurse with 12 years of experience, the top wage is $18.22 an hour, compared with $19.53 an hour earned by Ontario nurses after eight years. And under a new contract in British Columbia, signed after a 17day walkout in June, nurses earn $19.68 an hour after six years.

The Quebec nurses disregarded the threeyear-old essential-services bill in order to attract attention to their cause. Union leaders said that they did not want to lose the opportunity to press for concessions during the campaign for the Sept. 25 provincial election. “There is a lack of political will and good faith on the part of the government,” said Lavallée. As the mood of defiance on the picket line heightened last week, she added, “There is no

question of us lifting the strike until the government sits down at the bargaining table.”

Still, Bourassa stood firmly by his position that the strike would have to end before negotiations began. For his part, Johnson stood by his orders—issued under the terms of Bill 160 within hours of the first walkouts—instructing hospital administrators to dock strikers two days’ pay for each day they remained off the job. On Friday, the government went further: Justice Minister Gil Rémillard announced that Lavallée and two other nurses’ federation executives had been ordered to appear in a Montreal court this week to face contempt charges. The charges carry a maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine or one year in jail. But those sanctions did not seem to trouble many strikers. Many of them said that their profession is already in crisis and that they would prefer to find other jobs rather than go back to work under the government’s terms. “It is our last resort,” Schryer said on the picket line. “We are ready to stay out as long as

it takes for them to change their minds.”

The confrontation was the latest unexpected development to upset Bourassa’s carefully planned election campaign. It followed an earlier dispute with residents of Baie-Comeau, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, over his government’s decision to store PCB wastes at a Hydro-Québec site near the town. And by the end of last week, the Liberals’ pre-election lead in opinion polls had slipped dramatically to as little as six per cent from 21 per cent at the beginning of the campaign, according to one survey published in Le Journal de Montreal. And now, Bourassa faces the prospect of thousands more Quebec civil servants going out on strike. Late last week, union leaders representing 90,000 hospital workers—including nurses’ aides, kitchen staff and maintenance workers—warned 50 hospitals that their members will begin their own walkouts starting this week. Meanwhile, members of the Confederation of National Trade Unions and the Quebec Teachers’ Federation—roughly

300,000 workers in all—have also given their leaders strike mandates.

Still, the premier received support from an unexpected quarter last week. Parti Québécois leader Jacques Parizeau, who earlier assailed Bourassa’s handling of the environment, endorsed his stand against the nurses’ union. Said Parizeau, who was booed by nurses at a campaign stop in Sherbrooke: “One cannot sanction an illegal strike in hospitals.” And veteran labor leader Louis Laberge, whose Quebec Federation of Labor has endorsed the PQ in the election campaign, also had indirect encouragement for Bourassa. The strike, Laberge warned, “could only help the premier” by allowing him to appear decisive in a dispute that affected public health. After the setbacks of the first half of the campaign, Bourassa appeared to need all the help he could get to put his re-election campaign back on track.

MICHAEL ROSE