Nurses Strike for Better Staffing and Patient Care
For ten days in April, the province of Saskatchewan was the scene of an illegal strike by 8,400 fed-up and exhausted nurses. The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN) shut down practically all health care facilities in the province, including hospitals, home care, public health, mental health care, and long-term care facilities.
The strike was prompted by a severe nursing shortage and the resulting lack of quality patient care. Nurses endured canceled days off, canceled vacations, and worked seven, ten and 14 days without a break. Some nurses worked not only regular double shifts in order to care for patients, but as many 18 to 20 twelve-hour shifts in a month. Ninety-six hour work weeks were common.
These extreme working conditions, said one Canadian doctor, were the result of a deliberate government policy to "eviscerate and emasculate" the health care system.
Every year, there is a net loss of nurses because Canada does not graduate enough nurses to replace those who retire or leave the profession. In addition, many nurses go to the U.S., where wages are generally higher.
SUN's strike demands were aimed at resolving this crisis: improving wages and benefits to retain and encourage nurses to practice in Saskatchewan; improving working conditions; and requiring management to adhere to professional nursing standards.
This last demand results from the failure of a committee set up after a previous strike. Since the three-member Independent Assessment Committee was formed in 1988 to rule on nursing standards complaints, the union has won every grievance filed on staffing issues. However, management ignored the committee's decisions and staffed the hospitals as it chose.
Because of this stonewalling, the union demanded guarantees that IAC decisions would be final and binding. In short, they wanted management to agree to uphold professional standards.
After ten days, the nurses went back to work when management agreed to sign a Memorandum of Understanding providing for a 13.7 percent raise in pay and benefits over three years. Management also accepted the nurses' demand that IAC staffing decisions would be binding.
The union clearly understood the importance of unifying the membership and winning public support--and it was successful at both.
When the walkout began, SUN offered to provide services to high-risk patients. The government refused. Instead it flew patients to Alberta and to the U.S.
"They were trying to get public sympathy on their side... but it didn’t work too well," explained Local 8 President Glenna Sparks of Rosetown, Sask. "Taxpayers were ripped that they spent all that money foolishly to try to make themselves look good right before an election."
Sparks notes proudly that only 20 nurses crossed picket lines when--six hours into the strike--the government passed legislation ordering the nurses back to work and imposing a contract.
Sparks believes that advance planning and member education as well as membership input was the key to the low scab rate. After almost one year of contract preparation, the union held its Bargaining Conference last fall. Any member could attend this conference and debate "what should go into the bargaining package," she says.
The union began bringing up the idea of a strike at membership meetings during the same time.
To minimize picket line crossings at her hospital, Sparks set up a buddy system: "We all work together and no one was going to cross that picket line, even if we were illegal! I got the strong union nurses to keep an eye on the weaklings and give them support."
THE "PRO-LABOR" NDP
Saskatchewan's government is controlled by the New Democratic Party, formerly regarded as pro-labor. With considerable foresight, it had co-opted the previous president of SUN as well as a leader of the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association into the government. Consequently, it expected little resistance from the nurses as it implemented plans to give business a tax cut and to give nurses only a two percent raise.
However, the new SUN leaders and rank and file nurses surprised the NDP strategists and put the issue of the shortage of nurses and the resulting lack of quality patient care squarely in front of the public. Due to the nursing shortage, for example, some nurses in long-term care have been required to pass medications to as many as 150 patients.
In March, to illustrate the seriousness of the nurses’ plight, nurses piled their white shoes on the lawn in front of Parliament and carried signs that read, "Worn Out Souls."
After the back-to-work legislation was passed on the first day of the strike, the union gathered over 2,000 striking nurses for a rally in Regina. Cosette Collins, a member of SUN Local 199, says the key to the large mobilization was "a reliable province-wide fan out communication system with personal contacts by regional union reps, voice mail, faxes, and a toll free telephone number available to all members for regular updates."
At the rally, SUN President Rosalee Longmoore asked members what they planned to do. The response from the rank and file was a thunderous, "Hell, no! We won’t go" (back to work). A few days later, almost four thousand nurses, in a marathon three-hour meeting, decided to refuse to obey a court injunction ordering them back to work. Bravely, they prepared to go to jail rather than work.
The nurses used the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King to provide the philosophical foundation for defying the injunction. "There are just laws and unjust laws. We have the responsibility to defy unjust laws," declares Sparks.
The union mobilized members to write letters to the editor, picketed NDP political leaders, lobbied legislators, and picketed hospitals.
"Throughout this time, donations of money and support came pouring in from all over the country and even from the U.S. It was a sight to see. The support from the community was overwhelming because the union did such a good job of getting the facts out to the public," said Sparks.
"WHERE'S MY KISS?"
The nurses’ nemesis was Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow, chief strategist of the effort to crush the strike. One nurse carried a picket sign reading, "Hey, Roy. Where’s my kiss? I usually get one after I’ve been screwed!"
The court injunction imposed fines in the millions of dollars on the union and individual nurses. SUN told the nurses that the union would cover any individual fines.
Five days into the strike, the Saskatchewan Government Employees Union struck in solidarity.
As the strike entered the ninth day, CUPE Local 2419, representing academic assistants at the University of Regina, held the largest union meeting in recent memory and voted to go out on a sympathy strike. The local also passed motions to break with the NDP in upcoming elections and urged the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour to declare a general strike.
Although the nurses went back to work after the Health Ministry signed the Memorandum of Understanding, negotiations have more recently bogged down. Management negotiators are attempting to renege on the agreement to make the Independent Assessment Committee's staffing decisions binding.
SUN nurses have threatened another strike if the agreement isn’t implemented. Whether the union will have to pay the heavy fines remains undecided.
Picketing at New Democratic Party functions continues, and SUN promises to be very active in the June elections, campaigning for candidates that support SUN’s program.