Thursday, April 3, 2014

Nova Scotia Nurses Strike for Patient Safety

by Wendy Forrest in Toronto

This morning April 3rd  Registered Nurses, members of the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union, are on legal strike against the Capital District Health Authority in Halifax NS.
On April 1st just 3 days before being in a legal strike position approximately 150 RNs staged an illegal walkout in an attempt to  defeat legislation tabled in the provincial legislature. The province  wants to pass Bill 37, the  Essential Health and Community Services Act- designed to limit and in some cases prohibit nurses and other health care workers from striking. By 8pm the same day the province ordered the RNs back to work. It is expected that the bill will be passed by 8pm Friday April 5th at which time the nurses will be ordered back to work.

The key issue in this dispute is guaranteed nurse-patient ratios, following on the victory of  the California Nurses Association who fought for and won legislation around nurse-patient ratios. By increasing the number of nurses these ratios guarantee safer staffing levels in hospitals and other health care institutions. Nurses in unions across the country are beginning to make this a central demand in collective bargaining. The striking Nova Scotia nurses are making it clear that patient care and safety as well as safe working conditions for their members is a priority.

The employer rejects this demand saying that there is no evidence that nurse-patient ratios ensure increased safety for patients. This response is to be expected once we realize that what employers really want is increased flexibility and the right to reduce staffing levels without challenge. Cutting costs is the mantra of what is now a business model of health care delivery in Canada. No longer based on patients needs and workers rights to deliver health care under decent and safe working conditions but on federal and provincial agendas to underfund and undermine public healthcare and drive down wages and safe working conditions.

Yesterday when approximately 150 RNs did not report for work, the Capital District Health Authority which consists of 4 major health care facilities in Halifax, were forced to cancel several elective surgeries and move patients to other health care facilities. By the end of the day today one-third of the beds in Capital health facilities are expected to close and hundreds of outpatient appointments have been cancelled.

Nurse unions across Canada will be watching this strike carefully and a lot depends on the the Nova Scotia nurses. RNs along other health care workers are facing attacks on their wages, benefits and working conditions such as scheduling and safety.

In a CBC interview yesterday Joan Jessome , President of Local 97 of  NSGEU states "There definitely, absolutely will be an impact to patient care, but there has been an impact to patient care for years...that's what the the nurses have been talking about and nobody is listening."

As`usual, hospital and government authorities with the cooperation of the media, peddle stories of public suffering and inconvenience in order to influence public opinion against the union.

In Ontario where the nurses union abandoned the right to strike decades ago, the absence of a well organized, determined fight back on the part of unions representing health care workers resulted in the enactment of essential service legislation which limits and in some cases prohibits public sector workers from exercising their right to strike.

In this age of austerity where attacks on all public sector workers and public services are escalating, workers have a huge fight in store to defend our rights to decent wages, benefits, pensions and safe working conditions. Underlying this offensive  is a bold push towards privatization of health care and other public services and a drive to push down labour costs. Governments at all levels deliberately underfund health care, welfare and education without impunity. A genuine fightback on the part of workers and our allies in our communities is the only way to defeat these attacks and stop the theft of public services.

In Ontario and other provinces over the last three decades we are seeing open warfare declared on health care. As hospitals close more and more health care delivery is happening in the home. Home Care, staffed overwhelmingly by racialized and doubly oppressed and exploited women, continues to drive down the cost of labour.  As home care hours are reduced to less than bare minimum, the job of delivering health care will be done for free by families and friends, again primarily women.
Poorly paid home care workers have little to no safety regulation as the site of health care delivery moves out of hospitals and into the home.

Health care transfers and budgets have been slashed by federal, provincial and municipal governments.  Especially in health care, public/private partnerships have flourished as governments cry poor to mask their agendas to get out of the business of providing essential public services. More and more services are de-listed from public insurance and ordinary working people are paying out of pocket for health care.

The power of public sector workers to maintain their previous gains in collective bargaining let alone to defend hard won public services in Canada is literally crashing. Essential service and back to work legislation which forces unions to limit the numbers of workers that can strike legally and in some cases prohibit workers from going out at all weakens the only tool workers have to defend themselves after all else has failed.

Interest arbitration means that in provinces like Ontario, workers cannot even vote on a contract of many public sector unions. When unions and employers do not agree at the bargaining table arbitration is mandated. When the power and the right of workers to vote on a contract is taken away, combined with legislation that either limits or prohibits the right to strike, union members are left with virtually no power or control over their collective agreements.

What small crumbs are left like the process that gives unions some power over choice of arbitrators, are under threat. If the Conservative party in Ontario takes power they are proposing to amend legislation where all public sector arbitration in Ontario will have to consider “ the employers ability to pay in light of its fiscal situation”,  and “the extent to which services may have to be reduced, in light of the decision or award, if current funding and taxation levels are not increased”  as well as "The economic situation in Ontario and in the municipality.”

Conditions such as these if introduced and enacted will in effect make collective bargaining in the public sector a joke. Government austerity agendas and attacks on public sector workers and public services will override the rights of workers and the defeat any attempts to save our public services like health care, education and welfare. 

The striking nurses in Nova Scotia, by making nurse-patient ratios a central demand  know that the backdrop for their action is rationing of health care dollars and cost reduction. They know that governments and health authorities are undermining patient safety as well as attacking their rights to safety in the workplace and to decent working conditions. They know as well that patients are at risk when hospital and long term care wards are understaffed. They know that the trend on the part of employers is to refuse to replace nursing staff when their coworkers are sick. Also,  nurses everywhere are fighting to defend hard won scheduling language that guarantees them enough hours of rest between shifts and overtime pay if they are forced to work double shifts.

Employers refuse to connect the safety and well being of health care workers with the safety and well being of their patients and clients. No member of the public would ever choose to be cared for by health care workers who are exhausted by over work related to insufficient staffing levels and/or by insufficient rest and sleep. So once again we see workers defending not only their own rights and entitlements but defending the public when the politicians refuse to do so.

As a front line worker for over 4 decades in Ontario it is appalling to see the provincial health authorities escalate attacks on health care workers and ultimately on the public's right to quality health care services. In 2014 as contacts expire, the government and employers are tabling wage rollbacks for new RNs, minuscule wage increases that do not come close to meeting the cost of living increases and detrimental changes to scheduling language.

These are among many reasons why we must support workers like the nurses in Nova Scotia. Without the right to strike it is hard to envision a serious fight back, hard to envision the possibility of a victory for nurses and allied health care workers. It is even more difficult to envision a victory for the public, the patients and clients who are depend on us all for their health and their lives. That is why the nurses in Nova Scotia deserve nothing but the utmost solidarity and support for their courageous actions when they illegally walked out and on legal strike today and throughout this conflict.

Nurses and allied health care workers have been talking for a long time to the public, to our respective government officials and to the bosses about the dual burden of protecting not only our rights as workers to decent pay, benefits, pensions and safety but the need to fight for and protect public health care.

In the absence of militant even illegal action if necessary we will, with utmost certainty see the race to the bottom continue and escalate a dramatically rapid pace.

It is essential in the absence of any commitment whatsoever on the part of governments to defend and support public health care in Canada and across the globe that our unions mobilize our members to take whatever actions are necessary to defend the public and to defend and respect our work.
If we do not the results are unthinkable. Ordinary working and poor people will die as private corporations raid and destroy our health care and other public services. The rich will not suffer! They will always be able pay for private health care and gain from their shares in the private health care and insurance conglomerates.

In order to defeat the corporate medias propaganda and portrayal of the “overpaid and lazy " public service worker and “inefficient, bloated and costly public services” we need our allies in our communities and in order to earn their support we have to join them in their struggles for a living wage, for social assistance and unemployment incomes that poor and unemployed workers can survive on.

The Nova Scotia nurses ,members of the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union have taken the fight beyond talk and onto the picket lines and into communities. By doing this they set an example that cannot be ignored and must be emulated.  It is a huge battle and we have to win- the alternative does not bear thinking about.
We have seen in Nova Scotia this week an example of the frustration and anger felt by nurses and other public sector workers. And we see how eager and ready workers are to take action to defend themselves and the services they provide when leadership is strong and militant. Regardless of the results of this Nova Scotia strike this is the lesson we need to take away.

Workers are angry and frustrated and will become more so as attacks continue and they will.
What is needed is leadership in the trade unions that will not frustrate and waste the anger and readiness of workers to go on the offensive. 

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