Nurses revive old bargaining tactic

How do you get the government to listen? For Nova Scotia nurses the answer was the threat to resign en masse over recent labour struggles.

It’s the second time in a little over 25 years, nurses in Nova Scotia have taken such action. In 1973, nurses threatened to leave the profession to protest poor working conditions and low wages. The government eventually backed down.

Fast forward to 2001 and the same strategy is still proving to be a successful bargaining tactic.

The B.C. Nurses Union, embroiled in their own labour dispute, also threatened to walk out of the profession in a bid to stop the government from imposing a settlement.

“As a tactic it isn’t new. People have always voted with their feet. Historically, it’s been the way people respond to employers they didn’t like. (Nurses in Nova Scotia) have done collectively what employees have always done,” said Mark Leier, labour historian and professor at Simon Fraser University in B.C.

For health-care workers, such extreme measures are a result of years of frustration.

“What we saw there was the fruition of 25 years of campaigns against the public service. They are extremely dissatisfied and alienated.”

Leier said the recent labour uproar is reminiscent of the late 1960s, when the health-care sector was hit with a wave of wildcat strikes as employees tried to win the fight over the right to strike.

In this latest bid, 75 per cent of nurses employed by Nova Scotia’s largest hospital threatened to quit unless the government agreed to a new contract. Nurses in the province were also reacting to no-strike legislation the government was planning to introduce.

“It is a very extreme bargaining tactic but they had no other choice. The government was denying them their rights but there was no way they could have stopped them from quitting,” said Paulette Sadoway, an Atlantic Canada representative for the Canadian Labour Congress.

The government did back down and the nurses seemed to have won that battle for now. But less than a month after the nurses had retracted their threats and both sides went to the bargaining table, Premier John Hamm said the government will go ahead with no-strike legislation for health-care workers.

While the threat to leave their jobs worked for nurses, Leier said he isn’t sure the same tactic would work in other sectors.

“Nurses have a monopoly over their jobs and they have the public’s sympathy. People do understand that they really carry the health-care industry.”

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