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Nurse strife a symptom of public-services crisis

by Judy HaivenLarry Haiven

Rally at the Legislature, April 3, 2014.  Photo Robert Devet
Rally at the Legislature, April 3, 2014. Photo Robert Devet
Originally published in the Chronicle Herald.
The current dispute over nurse-patient ratios between Capital Health and the NSGEU nurses is not new. The issue is not even isolated to nurses. Nor will it be resolved by whatever happens in the current round of collective bargaining. 
The issue has been around at least 40 years as the growing ranks of professionalized workers, especially those in public service, resist government cuts in the programs they deliver and the threat to their professional autonomy and discretion. 
This is no longer your father’s or mother’s union movement. The professionals are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it any more. 
For many years, nurses, technologists, teachers, professors, scientists, social workers and even lawyers have been wrestling with politicians, employers and bureaucrats over the future of public programs. And many of them have been winning public support for their battles. As their slogan goes “Our working conditions are your (learning, health care, law enforcement, etc.) conditions.”
This is happening in an economy where the gap between the ultra-rich and the rest of us has increased steadily, and those with some bargaining power are desperately clinging to the rim to avoid being flushed down the drain. 
More often than not, these battles are waged through collective bargaining, the only truly effective forum for bringing matters to the attention of governments and the public. 
It took these workers a while to learn from their blue-collar brethren and sistren; it may not be pretty, but the threat of a strike is simple and direct ... and a powerful wakeup call. Indeed, the control they seek on the picket line mirrors their loss of control at work. 
And governments outlawing strikes or gerrymandering “essential services” so high as to achieve the same result will not solve the problem or even push it out of the way. 
In fact, they make things worse, as law-abiding trade unionists defy the legislation and strike anyway. 
Take education for example. In 2005, B.C. teachers went on strike (illegally, since the government declared it unlawful) over class sizes. And the public support the teachers won forced the government to back away. 
And lawyers. Faced with legislation that forbade them to unionize or bargain collectively, Nova Scotia Crown attorneys took to the picket line illegally in 1998. Several days later, the government saw the error of its ways and these lawyers have been negotiating ever since. 
Alberta social workers, buckling under unmanageable case loads, went on strike in the 1990s and more recently as well, despite Alberta’s ban on work stoppages in public services. 
Saskatchewan medical technologists and therapists struck twice in the past decade, the first time illegally. 
Appropriately chastised, the provincial government did not repeat the error and reached the next agreement without a strike ban. 
The unions representing scientists employed by Ottawa are swearing to use any means at their disposal to resist the reign of terror to silence their members and their work, even as the federal government tries to make strikes a thing of the past. 
And, of course, there are the registered nurses. The first rash of nurses’ strikes in the early 1980s was not just about wages. A more important issue was the campaign for “professional responsibility” clauses in their collective agreements. Subjected for years to the dictum “see and be silent,” nurses came roaring out their long subordination to capture the reputation as the most militant of the new trade unionists. And the struggle to exercise their professional expertise and powers in a system trying to “run lean” continues to this day. 
Nurses have gone on strike many times, in most Canadian provinces, including weeks-long stoppages in Manitoba and Quebec. Most of these actions were illegal as provinces attempt to criminalize their actions. Yet penalties galore (including fines, reduction of seniority, suspensions and even dismissals) do not seem to deter the strikers. In several provinces, like B.C. and Nova Scotia, nurses have threatened mass resignation. These disputes are not about an extra nickel or dime. 
The “angels of mercy” who minister to our needs when we are ill are becoming class warriors. We should all take pause to consider for what, and whom, they are fighting. 
Judy Haiven and Larry Haiven teach in the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University and research labour relations.


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Topics: Labour
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