Nurses at risk of strike in Ontario

This article originally appeared in The Guardian and will be republished by Esquire as part of the “Cynthia Nixon for Governor” campaign.

To say that Ontario’s nurses are struggling is to state the obvious. After the provincial Liberal government handed out bonuses to its staffers and bureaucrats for meeting goals, it suspended raises for nurses, whose negotiations with the Liberal government were threatening to break down. The nurses aren’t getting raises at all, making them look like the smug go-getters from the austerity crowd. But nurses aren’t the only people in Ontario in need of pay raise, and Ontario isn’t the only province to experience stagnant, flat, or falling pay for public servants. But Ontario, unlike many other provinces, is going to be forced to pay for its nurses’ wage freeze—and at a time when it is attempting to find the money for their labor in an increasingly difficult fiscal environment. The contracts aren’t binding, and many nurses look like the low-cost labor around which any new health care system will be built.

“This is outrageous,” said Lee Anne Doyle, chair of the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA), which represents 40,000 nurses. Doyle said that nurses would rather have been paid retroactively for years of frozen wages, but “at the end of the day, our members are worth every penny that they earn.” And Doyle said she understands the decision to let nurses get sick until the end of August and strike after the rally on September 6, and will go back to negotiations after the labor day weekend.

“I don’t want to see nurses at the table trying to get someone else’s salary at the expense of our own,” Doyle said.

Nurses stand outside a unionized home health care clinic in Toronto. (Vincent Yu/The Canadian Press via AP)

Yet Ontario is in a bind, despite having one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Even as the northern province is rewriting its income tax rules and the government awaits the conclusion of NAFTA negotiations in an effort to retool the tax structure to retain and attract talent, Ontario pays doctors $200,000 more than doctors in the United States. As such, Ontario’s tax revenues are unlikely to increase. Labour costs represent a low-hanging fruit. Doyle said nurses’ unions put forward some proposals in budget negotiations but it went nowhere, leaving a poor labor climate in a poor economy. “For us, it’s a no-brainer,” Doyle said.

Low pay for nurses is just the tip of the iceberg for public servants. Unionized public servants now face an overall cost of living decrease, as well as the possibility of Ontario cutting health care from $32 billion to $21 billion a year. Doyle said that while nurses might appreciate the fact that the public sector is shrinking in some departments, it is having a severe impact on public health.

“You’re only given one shot at healing someone,” Doyle said. “You start to lose your nerve. You stop listening, and everything you believed is lost.”

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