LABOR

Alberta’s defiant nurses

JOHN HOWSE February 8 1988
LABOR

Alberta’s defiant nurses

JOHN HOWSE February 8 1988

Alberta’s defiant nurses

LABOR

After 27 years of service, nursing instructor Eryka Haley walked off the ward at 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 25 and joined a union picket line outside Calgary’s Foothills Provincial Hospital. And at week’s end, she and 11,400 nursing colleagues remained embroiled in an illegal strike that has severely strained the province’s health care system. Hospital authorities say that no patients have died as a direct

result of the strike by the United Nurses of Alberta. But many of the doctors, nursing supervisors and nurses’ aides who are attempting to care for patients in the nurses’ absence said that the 133 hospitals and nursing homes affected could not withstand a prolonged walkout. Still, Haley and her colleagues said that they would remain off the job—even though they are risking heavy fines and jail sentences by doing so. Declared the 48-year-old Haley: “The government uses my expertise and refuses to pay me what I am worth. They are bullying us with penalties and refusing to negotiate.”

Hospital administrators attempted to cope with the effects of the walkout through such measures as admitting only critically ill patients, cancelling elective surgery and discharging patients who did not need constant medical care. But the officials did so in the knowledge that an additional 2,300

nurses at Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospitals were also engaged in intense negotiations. There, at the last fully operational major hospital centre in the province, the nurses—who are members of a different union, the Staff Nurses Associations of Alberta—are pressing roughly the same claim as their UNA colleagues: a 10-per-cent increase over two years in pay scales that range from $14.25 to $16.47 per hour.

In response, the Alberta Hospital Association, the employer organization that represents the 133 provincially funded institutions, has offered UNA nurses a single 3.25-per-cent increase, beginning April 1 and applied to the last 15 months of a two-year contract. University of Alberta Hospitals administrators, meanwhile, proposed a twoper-cent increase over 15 months to SNA negotiators.

But representatives for both unions have rejected those offers. UNA members walked out in defiance of a 1983 Alberta no-strike law, which places nurses in the same category of essential service workers as firefighters and police officers. Currently, only Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia still extend full strike rights to nurses, according to a spokesman for the Ottawabased National Federation of Nurses’ Unions. The Alberta law, which came into force one year after a 23-day nurs-

ing strike, prescribed binding arbitration to resolve such labor disputes—an option that has never been exercised and that the UNA, whose contract expired Dec. 31, has rejected. But meanwhile, the province has appointed a department of labor mediator.

In addition, UNA members defied the Alberta Labour Relations Board and walked out despite a Jan. 25 board ruling that prohibited the nurses from launching last week’s strike—a necessary step before the law can be applied. Then, when the union defied its edict, the board filed its ruling with the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. And that action,in turn,allowed the hospital association to prepare contempt-of-court charges against UNA leaders. At week’s end, association spokesman Rod Larsen noted that the charges carried such penalties as fines as high as $1,000 and, in default of payment, prison terms of up to one year. As well, on Friday Attorney General James Horsman laid criminal contempt charges against the UNA, due to be heard in Edmonton Monday, which could entail moves against the union’s assets, including its $1.5-million emergency fund.

As the deepening o health care crisis forced § Premier Donald Getty to g cut short a vacation in § Palm Springs, Calif., and í return to Edmonton, g there were no signs of a 9 quick end to the strike— and the acrimonious ac" cusations hurled by both sides in the dispute. Hospital association spokesman Larsen, for one, accused the nurses of “holding hospital patients and the general public to ransom.” And Dr. Roy Le Riche, the registrar of the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons, bluntly described the strike “as no different than terrorism.” Added Le Riche: “I am sure Florence Nightingale is rotating at great speed in her grave.”

For her part, UNA president Margaret Ethier angrily dismissed a hospital administrator’s charges that some nurses had walked out without first ensuring the safety of patients entrusted to their care. Added Ethier: “The AHA has tried to intimidate us and it is not working. They can call in the army, but only a negotiated settlement will stop the strike.”

— JOHN HOWSE in Calgary with correspondents’ reports