The Manitoba Nurses' Strike
Black, Errol, Canadian Dimension
Manitoba nurses returned to work February 1, 1991 after 31 days -- the longest nurses' strike in Canadian history. Manitoba nurses struck for the same reasons their sisters in Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia struck four times since 1988. They struck for better wages, more power, and better working conditions.
The striking union, the Manitoba Nurses Union, is the renamed Manitoba Organization of Nurses' Associations (MONA), formed in 1975; after two previous votes, nurses passed the name change in April 1990. A total of 80 per cent of Manitoba's nurses are in unions, the highest percentage in Canada. The MNU represents 10,500 nurses employed in 104 provincially-funded hospitals and personal care homes. Membership is 97 per cent female; the MNU is a women's union.
While the union's membership consists entirely of nurses and is mainly women, it is not monolithic. The membership includes 3,000 Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN's) and 7,500 Registered Nurses (RN's). Working conditions vary considerably. Two thirds of MNU mebers work in Winnipeg in settings ranging from large, multi-purpose hospitals to smaller, highly specialized facilities. The other third is scattered across rural Manitoba and the North, in small farming communities, mining communities, and the Port of Churchill.
Attitudes among rural members differ from those of urban members. This historical urban-rural split the exposed the union to government divide-and-conquer tactics which have alienated nurses from government. The solidarity reflected in the union's April 1990 name change signified that discontent was stronger than internal and nurses were ready to overcome this split.
MNU head Vera Chernecki described the discontent in a May 1990 interview:
"A critical issue is the frustration and discontent of nurses with the deterioration in working conditions. This, in turn, has led to a deterioration in the quality of patient care... Workloads have been increasing as a result of the increasing severity of illness of patients, but funding and staffing have not kept pace. As well, there have been increases in paperwork and non-nursing functions that must be performed by nurses.
"There is also a belief on the part of our members that our work isn't valued. We have no say in decision-making related to health care issues, and we receive no recognition for the importance of our contribution to health care."
The MNU had previously raised these issues in submissions to the government, calling for direct nurse input into the funding practices of the Manitoba Health Services Commission; the creation of elected advisory committees of nurses with access to hospital boards, and the election of nurses to hospital boards. Chernecki said in May 1990 that proposed nurse input into decision-making had met with a great deal of resistance from hospital managers and administrators:
"We have had the issue of input into decision-making processes on the table previously. It will be on the table again this time. It is something our members needs; it is something they want."
Ms Chernecki cited a long list of other matters on which nurses wanted input and action. They included abuse of nurses by patients, co-workers, physicians and patient's families; an increasing incidence of back injuries due to insufficient staff and mechanical support in lifting patients; threats to health and safety resulting from communicable diseases, chemical hazards and stress; technological change and the drive for greater specialization; and the lack of opportunity for nurses to upgrade their qualifications.
Nurses wanted more power, improved working conditions, better wages. But the union knew these would not come without struggle.
When the MNU went into the 1990 negotiations, it presented proposals addressing its members' major concerns -- joint trusteeship of pension plans, representation on hospital boards, and the creation of nursing advisory committees with a mandate to address issues concerning patient care. …