Strike averted

Dave Bartlett & Everton Mclean
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Government, nurses reach compromise hours before strike

The province's nurses' union might have had to compromise on one of its key points to get a contract with the provincial government, but union president Debbie Forward suggested avoiding a labour dispute was worth it.

A tired Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses Union president Debbie Forward addressed members of the media 7:30 a.m. Wednesday to discuss a tentative agreement reached with the provincial government after an overnight negotiation session that averted a nurses

The province's nurses' union might have had to compromise on one of its key points to get a contract with the provincial government, but union president Debbie Forward suggested avoiding a labour dispute was worth it. At about 5 a.m. Wednesday, the union and government reached a tentative agreement that stopped a nurses' strike just 2 1/2 hours before the province's nurses were expected on the picket lines. Mrs. Forward said she was "very, very pleased that we were able to, first of all, avert a nurses' strike in this province." The tentative agreement included an across the board compounded pay increase of 21.5 per cent, plus new step increases for new nurses and senior nurses (representing a total pay increase of 31 per cent and 27 per cent respectively for these groups by the end of the contract). It also includes substantial increases to shift differentials and standby rates and increase in funding for education leave. Mrs. Forward indicated the agreement came after a night-long session of bargaining which centred mainly on changing language in the contract that would have allowed government to give individual nurses better salaries as a recruitment and retention strategy. The new agreement states that they can only provide limited benefits, such as hiring bonuses, but not higher salaries. "I'm proud of the position that nurses have taken and the strength they have shown over the last couple of months to strive for an agreement they know will protect not only health care in this province but protect our rights as a union.
"That is a good thing for nurses and is also a good think for this province." She said the decision not to continue to push for new language around extended earning losses (EEL), which was the union's other main sticking point, was made late in the negotiations. The clause allows the employer to terminate a nurse's job after more than two years on permanent disability. "When it came down to it this morning, and we knew we were close to language on market adjustment, then you have to make a decision as to what is important as you head into a lock out or a nurses strike to disrupt health care."
She acknowledged the union still has the ability under the Human Rights Act to challenge EEL if it feels an individual nurse's job should not be terminated after two years. Premier Danny Williams told reporters outside the House of Assembly on Wednesday that he called union officials after meeting with Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy after supper. "Because the matter was of such importance and that health care was involved, we felt it worth going back to the table one more time to see if we could find a ground everyone was comfortable with."
The premier noted discussions around market adjustment were settled by both sides when each agreed on language which would allow the province to offer nurses bonuses for taking jobs in hard to recruit areas, without going outside the collective agreement. Meanwhile, the province's health authorities were working Wednesday to move back to full services instead of essential services put in place for the strike. Louise Jones, acting CEO of Eastern Health, said the health authority is ramping services back up, but the process will take a day or two and some surgeries and procedures have to be rescheduled. Mrs. Jones indicated that health-care facilities started reducing services May 14 in preparation for a strike. Despite the trouble, she said she was more than relieved to have a full complement of nurses on the job. Under essential services agreements for a strike, only 1,400 of the region's 3,300 nurses would report to work. While Mrs. Jones admitted it could take some time to smooth over some hard feelings incurred over the course of the negotiations, she expects good working relations. "I know some of that plays out in the workplace, but what we're hearing this morning from our nurses is that they're delighted to have a tentative agreement and happy to be at work." The Association of Registered Nurses of Newfoundland and Labrador (ARNNL) also threw its support behind the deal. ARNNL president Jim Feltham indicated "The tentative agreement stands as a testament to the commitment of both parties to the future of nursing and ensuring the public's access to quality nursing and health care in the Province."
St. John's Telegram

Organizations: Association of Registered Nurses of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: St. John's

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