Ontario nurses deserve better pay, and they’re right to fight back | Sarah Blyth and Max Benitez

Nurses help nearly nine million patients every day across Ontario, and they’re also the backbone of our health care system. The provincial government has now tried to offer nurses a bad deal in the hopes that the opposition parties will back away from full strike action. Instead, the nurses have decided to stand firm in order to protect their best interests.

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The NDP, CUPE and most of Ontario’s politicians have urged the union and the government to come to an agreement. After months of negotiations, the government’s offer of back-to-work legislation continues to remain on the table. It’s not surprising that the government is hesitant to take action: the legislation would effectively close a major labour threat by making it illegal for nurses to strike.

This would also open a major gaping hole in the province’s labour rights. It puts the rights of Ontarians on the wrong side of history, especially when compared to workers in other parts of Canada. Ontario nurses have always faced obstacles at work that are unusual for the profession. The legacy of nepotism and sexism still prevails in the workplace today. More generally, the lack of professionalism found in many Ontario hospitals is problematic for the entire health care system.

‘The legacy of nepotism and sexism still prevails in the workplace today.’ (From left) Nathan Kissane, Kathi Spink, and Maureen Somerville at the University of Toronto / Toronto Star via AP)

In a health care system where every patient’s experience matters, and where less experienced staff have to compete for spot openings, problems like this become inevitable. Often, it is difficult to tell the difference between a nurse and a support worker, or between an experienced nurse and a recovering patient. As a result, older nurses end up stuck in a position where they have to prove their worth every day or risk getting fired. Studies have even shown that a minimum of five years of professional education is required to be a successful nurse. While the new generation of nurses still qualifies for full medicare benefits, that help isn’t coming fast enough.

Nurses need better pay to do their jobs properly. The proposed solution from the McGuinty government (in the form of Tier 1) is a quarter-cent cost-of-living raise for the sector, coupled with contracting out services to private providers. These added costs will only put further strain on the overstretched health care system, although that is something that the governing Liberals are well aware of. In the face of opposition from the Conservatives, the government has admitted that it will probably include private providers in the mix of care provided to nursing home residents in the future.

Pension plans remain the single most important form of retirement security, yet many Ontarians still struggle to save enough money for retirement. Currently, low- and middle-income Ontarians (even if they are self-employed) typically have to pay 50% of their earnings into a provincial pension plan. That, for such a short period of time, gives them less security in their retirement than most government employees (including those at the hospital) who receive automatic double-up benefits for the first 5% of their salaries.

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As nurses stand strong, they deserve acknowledgment for their commitment to patient care, as well as significant improvements to benefits and pay. We recommend that the two sides come to an agreement and go back to the bargaining table.

The only way the government will have any hope of ensuring that nurses are able to provide the most efficient and effective care possible is if it strikes a deal that allows them to take on this task with the resources they need.

Nurses’ collective action will help ensure that their voices are heard. Their protests will strengthen their collective resolve, and will act as a stick to ensure that no other groups are denied their rights in the future.

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