Nurses in Manitoba consider strike vote while dealing with mounting COVID cases, strained hospitals

In a distressing moment where Manitoba’s hospitals have run out of room for the sickest among us, the province’s nurses are considering a strike vote.

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

But the Manitoba Nurses Union feels they have no choice but to consider a strike vote, after more than four years with stagnant wages under an expired collective bargaining agreement. 

“Most, if not all, of the employer’s offers are predicated on publicity crisis management to disguise the government’s disastrous dismantling of health care,” president Darlene Jackson wrote in an email to MNU leaders on Friday, which was obtained by CBC News. 

“The real life and direct front-line experience, based on concerns and solutions offered by nurses, are being dismissed. Leaving nurses and patients to continue to deal with the tragic aftermath of decisions that ignore reality.”

She alleged the province still wants to shift nurses to different locations on a whim, rather than addressing critical staffing shortages by bolstering recruitment and retaining efforts.

‘Political expediency’ at heart of province’s offers: MNU

“They offer ill-conceived half-measures based on political expediency rather than a sincere desire to address the dire needs in the health care system,” Jackson said by email.

For months, the union has argued that staffing shortages are getting worse. 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.”

On Monday, acting health minister Kelvin Goertzen said he saw the province’s proposal differently. He said Manitoba is extending a “significant, long-term, competitive monetary offers.”

“I think that that speaks well of the fact that we understand and value the work that nurses are doing, and we hope that there’ll be an agreement reached,” he said.

Neither Goertzen nor Jackson would share specifics of either party’s offer.

In other negotiations with public sector workers, the province has demanded a two-year wage freeze. Goertzen wouldn’t say if the government was asking to freeze the wages of nurses, but said he explained the province’s offers are “a recognition of the value of nurses and that’s recognized in a monetary way as well.”

Incentives on the table

Goertzen said the province is looking at an incentive for those nurses who were particularly impacted by COVID-19. 

In an interview, Jackson said the province’s offer may help in the short-term, but it doesn’t address the long-standing issues of failing to hire enough nurses — and keeping them.

“We have gone over the past five years from a chronic nursing shortage through an acute nursing shortage to we’re now in a critical nursing shortage. We have more vacancies than we’ve ever had,” she said.

“I recognize that we do need some short-term strategies, but we need to start playing the long game.”

Once the pandemic’s third wave subsides, there will be thousands of overdue surgeries, said Jackson, who worries that nurses won’t experience a respite from their workload any time soon. 

She disagreed with Goertzen’s assessment that the province is offering a significant and competitive offer. 

“If the government and the employers believe what they’ve put on the table is adequate, then I will have to respectfully disagree with them.”

Goertzen said he’s optimistic a strike will be avoided and he encourages both sides to reach a fair agreement.

Earlier this month, MNU cancelled a negotiation session with management, after describing the latest employer proposals as “far too disturbing” to “even consider.” 

The union said it has offered binding arbitration to come to an agreement, but management has refused so far.