Nurses in Manitoba begin voting on possible strike action

As Manitoba grapples with an overrun health-care system, with dozens of patients being flown out of province for intensive care, nurses have begun casting their votes on whether or not they want to take strike action after working without a contract for over four years.

“Had we been able to make any different choice we would have not even thought of doing this action at this point,” said Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson.

“This government has basically painted us into a corner, we have no options, we have to do this now.”

A vote does not mean a strike will happen, and nurses must still provide care since they’re deemed essential service providers, even if they choose to strike.

Instead nurses will begin refusing to do non-essential tasks, like answering phones or transcribing doctors’ orders that day, Jackson said.

“It’s going to be very, very low-key, it’s going to be minimal disruption for patient care and for nurses,” Jackson said.

There also won’t be any decreases to staff in any area that is dealing directly with COVID-19 patients, Jackson said.

The strike action would rotate through various units in each of the health care regions on different days.

Nurses have gone without a pay increase for five years, Jackson said, but the sticking points for them are not necessarily on wages but on efforts to recruit and retain nurses.

“It’s incredibly difficult when we’re in a national nursing shortage, and every province in this country is vying to bring more nurses in, it’s very concerning that this government isn’t more concerned about the retention and recruitment of nurses,” said Jackson.

Addressing staffing shortages would help alleviate issues with workloads and mandatory overtime as well Jackson said.

“It’s not always about compensation and it’s not always monetary. Retention and recruitment is also about the fact you get to go home at the end of your shift without being mandated for a double shift or — God forbid — a triple shift,” she said.

Union wants arbitration

Acting Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said essential service agreements are already in place between health-care employers and MNU, so operational impacts of a strike would be minimal.

“Nobody wants any kind of strike action, at anytime, but especially during the pandemic,” Goertzen said in an emailed statement.

Goertzen said he urges the parties to keep bargaining and that progress is being made.

“We want all of our nurses to have the certainty and comfort of a new, fair, long-term deal. They deserve that and we want that.”

“This includes an agreement that provides competitive compensation increases and retroactive payments, and with additional compensation packages to support nurses most severely impacted by COVID-19 surges.”

“We also want significant recruitment and retention initiatives that help improve nurses overall work-life balance,” Goertzen said.

Jackson said the union is still at the table with the province, but bargaining has slowed to a “glacial” pace and with changes to labour legislation looming this fall, the time to act was now.

Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson says any job actions taken would not disrupt patient care. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Under current labour laws a arbitration would become mandatory after 60 days of strike action.

“Our goal in this is not to disrupt patient care, it’s not to cause any kind of disruption during a pandemic, it is simply to get us through our 60 days of job action,” she said.

Jackson said the union has repeatedly asked the province to voluntarily agree to binding arbitration.

“We’ve got a hard ‘no’ on it every time,” she said.

Changes in the Labour Relations Amendment Act would wipe out the requirement for binding arbitration after a 60-day dispute between a union and employer, which could result in strikes and lockouts lasting indefinitely.

If nurses do vote in favour of a strike, Jackson said she’s hopeful that the province will change its mind before they need to take action.

“What we’re really hoping is going to happen is that the strike mandate is going to give the employers a really good idea that Manitoba nurses are united and actually come and agree to interest arbitration voluntarily.”

Voting began Sunday at 10 am and will go until Thursday morning at 10.

Roughly 12,000 nurses are eligible to vote.