Manitoba’s nurses don’t want ’empty platitudes’ on week celebrating them — they want a new contract

Save the cake that normally commemorates National Nursing Week, and give nurses the respect they deserve and a new contract offer that shows it, the Manitoba Nurses Union is telling the province.

President Darlene Jackson said nurses don’t want a “thank you” as the annual week begins — they want a new contract.

But the likelihood of a new agreement has hit a setback. Last week, MNU cancelled a negotiation session with management, Jackson said, after the union told its members in an email that the latest employer proposals are “far too disturbing” for MNU to “even consider.” 

“Nurses have heard empty platitudes and lots of thanks from [Premier] Mr. [Brian] Pallister and from the health minister throughout this pandemic,” Jackson said.

“But you know, they really haven’t done anything substantial to actually show their gratitude other than saying thank you.”

Nurses in the province have gone four years and counting without a collective agreement — which means wages have been stagnant for a group of workers regularly hailed as heroes during a pandemic that has strained the health-care system.

‘Sincere gratitude’ from health minister

In a public statement on Monday, health minister Heather Stefanson extended her “sincere gratitude” for nurses, whose jobs, she acknowledged, are not easy and come with long hours and great physical and emotional demands, especially during COVID-19.

Jackson doesn’t doubt that Stefanson’s remarks are genuine, based on discussions she’s had with the health minister, but said nurses want more than words. They’ll do without the cake they typically receive on National Nursing Week too, Jackson said.

“Telling me that you appreciate what I do and appreciate what nurses in this province do, it’s really time to show us some actions that you really do appreciate nurses in this province,” Jackson said.

She wouldn’t speak to the details of the bargaining proposals, citing confidentiality, but said the offers to date “does not even begin to reflect the realities that nurses are living in right now.”

Before the pandemic, provincial nurses have complained of nursing shortages, but the situation has worsened, Jackson said. The NDP obtained data through a freedom of information request that found a nursing vacancy rate in Winnipeg’s health region of 16.7 per cent as of January, which is double what a previous health minister said was “normal.”

“We’re in a critical nursing shortage and this pandemic is just driving nurses further than they’ve ever thought they would go,” Jackson said. “Mentally, psychologically, it is just it is absolutely exhausting.”

Darlene Jackson of the Manitoba Nurses Union said the nursing shortage in Manitoba has become a long-running, chronic issue. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The nurses and their provincial management have had more than 20 bargaining sessions since last October.

The MNU has offered binding arbitration, but management has refused so far.

After question period Monday, Stefanson said the pandemic and the province’s push to reduce the number of bargaining units have slowed down bargaining efforts so far.

The Progressive Conservative government sought a two-year wage freeze from numerous groups of public sector employees, including the front-line Manitoba Hydro workers who are on strike. The province is currently appealing a court decision that quashed a proposed wage freeze for 120,000 public-sector workers.