TEMPERS FLARE AND THOSE NEEDING CARE WORRY AS A BITTER MANITOBA NURSES’ STRIKE IS DEADLOCKED
As temperatures plunged far below the freezing mark, cardiac nurse Patricia Rogaski, 27, paced the snowpacked sidewalk outside Winnipeg’s 1,100-bed Health Sciences Centre. Attached to her parka was a sign that read: “The only good Tory is a supposiTory.” Beside her on the picket line, operating-room technician Margaret Kokorsch, 29, held a placard featuring a caricature of Manitoba’s Conservative premier, Gary Filmon, above the slogan “Public Enema No. 1.” Caustic medical humor has been plentiful on the picket line since New Year’s Day, when 9,500 Manitoba nurses went on strike at 86 provincial health-care facilities. And the evident anger among the strikers deepened late last week when the Manitoba Nurses Union rejected the government’s latest
wage offer. By a 94-per-cent vote, the nurses, who are demanding a 24-per-cent wage increase over two years, turned down the government’s proposal, which for some nurses would amount to 20 per cent over three years—including a pay equity increase. Calling the offer “peanuts,” Rogaski declared: “My sister checks out groceries and she makes the same hourly rate as I do.”
The Manitoba strike is the latest expression of frustration from nurses across Canada. Many of them claim that although they must frequently handle life-and-death situations, they receive only a fraction of the salaries earned by doctors. In the most recent job action, Quebec nurses went on a seven-day illegal strike in September, 1989—and won a settlement of up to 21.5 per cent over three years. An experienced nurse in Manitoba now earns $18.13 an hour—the second-lowest wage in Canada, surpassing rates only in Prince Edward Island. That compares with an hourly rate of $21.22 in British Columbia, where nurses are best paid. But Jonathan Lomas, a health policy analyst at McMaster University in Hamilton, noted that every Canadian province is also struggling to meet health costs that are consuming ever-larger proportions of government spending. Said Lomas: “One can’t treat Manitoba as having an isolated problem.” For his part, Manitoba Finance Minister Clayton Manness says that the province simply cannot afford to grant large pay increases to its
nurses. He called the province’s offer to them generous in light of a three-per-cent cap that he placed on Dec. 14 on settlements with other provincial unions. Manness also noted that health-care costs are still rising at a time when the recession is cutting into provincial tax revenues, and Ottawa has said that it will reduce its transfer payments to the less welloff provinces over the next two years. But nurses union president Vera Chemecki derided Manness’s claim. Declared Chemecki: “The government keeps saying it respects nurses. Paying nurses appropriate wages goes a long way towards respecting the work they do.” Meanwhile, the government’s three-percent limit has placed it on a collision course with other unions as well. The most explosive potential conflict involves the 25,000-member Manitoba Government Employees Association. About 15,000 members have been without a contract since September. Association president Peter Olfert told Maclean ’s that the union will be pressing for a salary increase of between eight and 12 per cent over one year. Last week, however, Manness tabled an offer that would see no increases in the first year and only two per cent in the second. Said Olfert: “It is unfair, unrealistic and unacceptable to us.”
Meanwhile, the province’s 40 provincial court judges are demanding a wage increase of 58 per cent.
But it was the strike already in progress that attracted Manitobans’ attention last week. Under essential-services agreements between individual hospitals and the union, about 1,600 nurses continued to work in emergency rooms and other critical care areas throughout the strike. But the dispute’s effects on the healthcare system were readily apparent. Hospitals limited surgery to lifesaving operations, called
on family members to feed seriously ill patients and began sending new mothers home within 24 hours of delivering a baby—a day earlier than normal. In the case of Charis and Stephen Milville, whose son Devon was bom in Winnipeg’s Victoria Hospital at 5:45 p.m. on Jan. 5, mother and infant were discharged only about five hours later. Said Stephen Milville: “A few people’s jaws dropped when we walked out.” The Milvilles said that the experience of having their first child only 17 months before helped them to cope with the situation. But, noted Charis Milville: “I think for somebody who was a first-time mother, it would be even more frightening.”
For Manitobans with serious illnesses that were not immediately life-threatening, the delays in surgery brought frustration. Marieanne Schade of Thompson, who suffers from breast cancer, had been scheduled to fly 400 miles south to Winnipeg for a Jan. 3 mastectomy. That surgery was postponed. Schade, who says that she blames the delay on the government’s inadequate offer to the nurses, complained angrily to her MLA—and found her operation
rescheduled within days. “Maybe it helps when you open your mouth,” said Schade, who underwent surgery on Jan. 7. But Eleanor Starr, 51, of Winnipeg was not as lucky. After undergoing a mastectomy in October, she had been scheduled for another operation in the first week of January after doctors discovered a malignancy in her second breast. That surgery was postponed—and at week’s end, she was still waiting for the operation to be rescheduled. “It is real mental torture,” said Starr. “I think it is terrible that this is allowed to go on.” While patients tried to cope with delays, the strike also increased the pressures on non-union and management staff, who have been called on to do some tasks normally performed by nurses. “There is no question that standards of care are deteriorating,” said James Rodger, assistant to the president at the Health Sciences Centre. “People here are tired. We worry that there could be errors due to fatigue. We cannot guarantee that patients won’t get hurt.” And Rodger voiced another concern: that the protracted strike will leave a legacy of bitterness that will further I strain relations between * nurses and health-care ad1 ministrators. “Tempers are S wearing thin as the strike “ moves into a tough, grinding £ process,” Rodgers told Macg lean ’s. In an effort to ease the o tensions, the centre and other hospitals have allowed nurses picketing in temperatures that over the past few weeks have fallen to as low as -39° C to warm up indoors. Declared Rodger: “We provided coffee from Day 1. We did not want any of our people getting hurt. This is a battle between institutions—not a personal one.”
Chemecki also said that the real battle was between her union and the government. And she added that it could cause lasting damage to Manitoba’s Tories, who won last September’s provincial election with a slim, three-seat majority. “The government’s mentality is against women,” said Chemecki, noting that less than three per cent of her union’s members are men. “It does not pay attention, especially since it won its majority. But we will remember—when we vote.”
Still, that consideration is unlikely to change Filmon’s position. Instead, as Manitoba’s Tories struggle to balance the budget, the nurses’ strike may be the first skirmish in a battle with labor that threatens to spread in the months ahead.
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