Canada

Defiance on the picket line

Quebec nurses stood tough in the face of government threats and fines

Brenda Branswell July 19 1999
Canada

Defiance on the picket line

Quebec nurses stood tough in the face of government threats and fines

Brenda Branswell July 19 1999

Defiance on the picket line

Canada

Quebec nurses stood tough in the face of government threats and fines

Brenda Branswell

Claudette Prévost’s resolve showed no signs of flagging. On Thursday, in spite of government threats and fines against striking Quebec nurses, her mood, and that of other pickets outside a Montreal hospital, remained defiant. “We have no choice,” said Prévost about continuing the illegal walkout. “I think the nurses are at the end of the tunnel. We can’t go backwards.” Like many of the province’s 47,500 nurses, Prévost, who works in intensive care, wasn’t at a loss for words as she expressed her frustration over “painful” working conditions—complaints that were shared by others on the picket line. “There’s always a bit of fear,” said fellow striker Nathalie Aubin. “But we are still optimistic because at one point the government will have to bend.”

With a little help from the nurses. The Parti Québécois showed no signs of leaning in that direction for most of last week; in fact, Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard vowed not to negotiate with the nurses while they continued their walkout. But by week’s end, with both sides deadlocked and nurses continuing to defy back-to-work legislation passed by the government on July 2, Jennie Skene, president of the Quebec Federation of Nurses, floated the idea of returning to the bargaining table—if the government offered some enticement. Skene proposed that her membership approve suspending the strike between July 13 and 15, provided the government was willing to negotiate salary and working conditions. Shortly after her announcement, the government gave its consent to negotiations. “We’ll try during these 48 hours to find a solution,” said the government’s chief negotiator, Maurice Charlebois, in a brief statement.

The PQ seemed to have little choice

but to accept the nurses’ overture given the absence of any real public backlash against the strike—despite more than 16,200 cases of postponed non-elective surgery. Last week, nurses delivered petitions of support to the premier’s Montreal office, signed by 120,000 people at their picket lines (union spokesmen

said they had hoped for 70,000 signatures). And as Bouchard tried to sway public opinion through a series of media interviews, his efforts were eclipsed by an embarrassing revelation that PQ organizers tried to orchestrate a covert media blitz to discredit the nurses.

A memo sent to riding offices urged

PQ members to bombard radio talk shows and newspapers with a defence of the government’s tough stance. It also stressed that people not identify themselves as party faithful, and suggested they argue, among other things, that the nurses were holding the sick “hostage.” With the wave of publicity that greeted the leaked memo, Bouchard apologized to the strikers, insisting he had no knowledge of the plan

and calling it an isolated incident. “The letter and the suggestions of clandestine initiatives to manipulate public opinion are ill-advised and unacceptable,” the premier said. “It is a badly conceived initiative and I have ordered the party to drop it for good.”

Some doctors, meanwhile, joined the nurses’ picket lines to show their support. Among them was Dr. Jack Rothstein, a Montreal ear, nose and throat

surgeon. “They are not asking for the moon,” said Rothstein, who blames government budget cuts for creating an “inadequate” health-care system. “It has become everybody’s strike.” Quebec nurses have the lowest minimum salary—$30,340—of the country’s unionized nurses, and are demanding a six-per-cent pay raise over two years and an immediate 10 per cent in catch-up pay to give them parity with provincial social workers. Addressing the latter point, Bouchard reiterated last week that some kind of wage-parity adjustment is possible. But with an eye on forthcoming negotiations with the rest of Quebec’s 400,000 public-sector workers this fall, the PQ stuck to its uniform offer of a five-per-cent pay raise over three years, saying it could not afford more.

The government is clearly up against a tough opponent. “Provincial governments have had very successful faceoffs against doctors, but they just can’t seem to win when they go up against the nurses,” observes Chris Baker of the Environics Research Group. According to Baker, public appreciation of nurses in Canada has risen in recent years partly because they have been given more responsibility because of budget cuts. “This has made them a very potent force to deal with,” Baker says. Other provincial premiers know that first| hand. In Saskatchewan, Roy 1 Romanow put off a provin| cial election call last spring 1 in part because of a labour s dispute with the province’s § nurses, who staged a 10-day illegal strike in April and defied a back-to-work order. (Last week, a Saskatchewan judge quashed a contempt of court ruling against the nurses on the stipulation that they pay $120,000 to medical charities.)

Nurses in other parts of Canada have expressed their solidarity with the Quebec strikers. The United Nurses of Alberta donated $20,000 to the Quebec union, which faces millions of dol-

lars in fines imposed by the PQ government. And in a symbolic show of support, a group of Ottawa nurses met their Quebec counterparts on a bridge linking the capital and Hull. “It’s the exact same problem across this country,” says Rosalee Longmoore, president of the Saskatchewan nurses’ union. “Nurses are standing up and saying they can’t take it any longer. If we are going to keep nurses working in the health-care system, we have got to fix it.”

Gilles Dussault, the director of the Université de Montreal's health administration department, says nationwide changes in the health-care system, including reforms and budget cuts, have changed nurses’ work. They are doing things differendy—in many cases without being prepared for a shift in their role—with reduced means, says Dussault, who agrees nurses are fed up. “Since it’s a phenomenon across the country, it gives Quebec nurses an even stronger sense of legitimacy,” notes Dussault. “They have the feeling they are right.” But so does the PQ. “I am convinced that Quebec public opinion will increasingly realize that what is going on makes no sense,” Bouchard declared last week in an interview with Le Soleil newspaper. “This strike is useless and harmful.” The plight of patients such as Diane Houle, who graced the front page of last Thursdays La Presse, may have given some supporters of the strike pause. A schoolteacher from Granby, Que., Houle needs surgery to remove a lung because of a tumour. She was finally scheduled to have the operation this week, after it was delayed six times because of the strike.

Bouchard has repeatedly raised the importance of the rule of law. “There is no group, no matter how sympathetic, that can allow itself to commit illegal acts,” he declared. On the other hand, notes Dussault, “the dilemma of the government is that they don’t want the nurses to be martyrs.” And the PQ already sports some bruises from the strike. A poll by the Montreal firm Groupe Léger & Léger showed the PQ slipping behind the opposition Liberals in popularity at the start of the dispute—41.9 per cent compared with 44.4 per cent for the Liberals. But with other negotiations looming, the PQhas so far tried to send a clear signal to others champing at the bit: it will stand firm. Ell