BALDREY: As school strike ends, a battle with B.C. nurses looms

Will The Great Teachers War of 2014 be followed by The Great Nurses War of 2015?

There is a distinct possibility that could indeed be the case and, if so, the B.C. government may find itself in a tougher fight with the BC Nurses Union than it faced with the BC Teachers Federation.

The BCNU’s contract expired at the end of March, and negotiations for a new one have barely begun. No specific issues have been addressed, as the two sides are discussing concepts more than anything else.

But the nurses do indeed have some specific issues, not the least of which is working conditions. It is not unusual for some nurses to work 16 hour days, since the nursing shortage is so acute.

The government had promised in the last contract to create about 2,100 new nursing positions. Only about a third of them have been created, leaving an enormous gap still be filled. And most of the new positions went to one specific place: a new tower at Surrey Memorial Hospital, which did not alleviate things elsewhere in the province.

The union says health facilities have failed to honour a requirement set out in the last contract to call in additional nurses when patient demand requires it, instead of just making nurses work buckets of overtime.

Here is the contract language: "…In instances where patient demand exceeds the normal capacity of a facility or a unit within a facility, the Employer will call in additional nurses as necessary to meet patient care needs."

The situation varies from region to region, of course. Some shortages are more acute in some places than in others (and the employer disputes the shortage is as bad as the union portrays).

But there clearly isn’t enough specialtytrained nurses in areas such as emergency rooms, cardiac units, ICUs, operating rooms and mental health.

The BCNU’s 42,000 members are expecting a wage increase, and the government will likely insist – as it did with the BCTF – that any settlement follows the "pattern" among other publicsector union settlements.

But the government may have a harder time dealing with the BCNU’s demand that more nurses are urgently needed. The union will argue, understandably, that a lack of nurses poses a genuine threat to proper patient care.

However, the nursing shortage – particularly when it comes to specialty trained nurses – is not confined to B.C. It is a national problem, which makes finding enough bodies to fill the positions may prove to be elusive.

The nursing shortage provides the BCNU the kind of leverage the BCTF lacked at the table. As well, the prospect of a nurses picket line around a health facility is a more worrying prospect for any government compared to a picket line around a school.

While that health facility would remain open, staffing would be at essential-service levels, which are likely to be substantially lower than normal. Patient care – and patient access – would therefore deteriorate.

Public sympathy for nurses will likely outweigh that directed toward teachers (a series of polls during the teachers dispute showed half the populace did not back the BCTF), making it harder for the government to deal with them.

The government was steadfast in its determination not to impose a contract on teachers. However, it may find itself having to do just that in a dispute with B.C.’s nurses, if The Great Nurses War of 2015 does indeed break out.

KUDOS TO BCTF BOSS

Readers of this column will know I’ve been fairly critical of the BCTF leadership over the years, particularly over its inability to negotiate contracts for its members. But kudos have to be extended to BCTF president Jim Iker, who presided over a tough slog of negotiations and emerged with an actual deal.

Iker didn’t get anywhere near what the BCTF was looking for going into negotiations, but he got the deal that was available and avoided keeping his membership on the picket line, losing pay cheques for another two or three weeks.

The six-year deal is a historic breakthrough, and it will be interesting to see if the BCTF local union presidents and local school superintendents can jointly administer the new education fund for hiring specialist teachers.

If they can, that bodes well for improving the often dysfunctional relationship between the union and its employer. If they can’t, the next contract round may be just as problematic as the one just finished – although I’ll be surprised if BCTF members ever for vote for an open-ended strike mandate again.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

Keith.Baldrey@globalnews

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