Everyone agrees that our health care system is in crisis. And at the foundation of that crisis are healthcare workers who are overworked and underpaid. Everywhere, the people that keep our hospitals, clinics, long-term care homes, home care services, and the other elements of our health care system running are leaving their jobs because they are sick and tired of working short and not being paid what they’re worth.
So it might seem like a step in the right direction that the Conservative government in Nova Scotia announced so-called bonuses for healthcare workers. In March, the Houston government committed $10,000 to nurses who had worked in the previous year and another $10,000 for nurses who committed to working full-time for the next two years. They also offered $5,000 for other workers in the health care system. While there has been some criticism about the exclusion of nurses on certain kinds of leaves or workers being left out because work has been contracted out, these bonuses have been widely touted as good for workers and good for the system.
But last month, the Tory government said the quiet part out loud, revealing the true purpose of the one-time payments.
Tories want one-time payment considered in bargaining
Nurses in the province have been without a contract since November 2020. In late June, the unions representing nurses, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union and the Nova Scotia Nurses Union, filed for conciliation because bargaining had stalled.
In response to questions about bargaining, Nova Scotia Finance Minister Allan MacMaster told reporters that the one-time payment was relevant to bargaining because the contract being negotiated “covers some of the same period that bonus applied to.” The implication is that the unions and the government aren’t able to agree on a wage package because the Conservatives want the one-time payments (which were not collectively bargained) to be accounted for in some way as part of the compensation nurses will receive under the agreement.
When the government introduced these one-time payments, they claimed the purpose was to help retain existing nurses and incentivize part-time or casual nurses to take on full-time work. In fact, it is clear now that the Conservative government was hoping to weaken the bargaining position of nurses and other healthcare workers. Workers and the public rightfully expect these workers to be offered substantial wage increases and other workplace improvement in this contract given the important role they have played over the course of the pandemic.
Health care workers, in general, are broadly supported in their calls for higher wages, better staffing levels and other issues because most people recognize that the backbone of the health care system is the people who work in it. By offering these one-time payments to healthcare workers the Tory government was able to appear as though they share this understanding, when really they see a one-time payment as a way to keep health care workers’ wages stagnant. A one-time payment sounds good, but ongoing wage increases are required if health care workers’ wages are even going to just keep up with inflation.
The need to increase wages for health care workers overall is also compounded by the actions of the previous Liberal government. In 2015, the Liberals legislated a wage pattern that limited wage increases to three percent over four years and started with a two-year wage freeze. So while $5,000 or $10,000 seems like a nice gesture, it does not make up for the wages that were taken from healthcare workers when the Liberal government squashed their bargaining rights.
Striking back with militant action, community support
Nurses in Nova Scotia have a long history of militant and radical workplace action. In 2001, nurses organized a mass resignation campaign and a wildcat strike to oppose a threat from the Tory government of the day to strip nurses of their right to strike. In 2014, when the Liberals tried to dictate which union nurses could join, nurses again held a wildcat strike and the Liberals backed down.
Despite this attempt by the Tories to undermine healthcare workers’ demands, nurses and other healthcare workers can fight back. We can look to the experience of education workers in Ontario in the fall to see how workers can strike back against government attacks. Education workers were prepared in every workplace to take job action. Workers pushed their leaders from below to insist that if they had to break the law they would, and they made clear to the public what was at stake if education workers were to lose. A similar strategy could be very effective for Nova Scotia health care workers.
For all of us who desire a health care system that’s there when we need it, it’s our job to build support for health care workers in our communities. Again, we can look to the Ontario education workers strike for inspiration. A grassroots campaign that easily allows people to make their support visible from wherever they are will be essential to ensuring that the government knows we have health care workers’ backs.
The bosses won’t cede any ground unless we fight for it. What may seem like a recognition of the value of our work is always, for the employer, a way to extract more from us in the end. But let’s not forget that at the end of the day, we are many and they are few.
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