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Dealing with critical staffing shortages and struggling to recruit and retain new nurses, the union that represents more than 12,000 nurses in the province say they’ve been pushed to the brink and now have to consider taking strike action.

Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union, said Saturday they’ve run out of every other available option in their quest to secure a new collective agreement with the province — and patient care hangs in the balance.

“If we lose any more nurses in this province, we’re not going to be able to provide the care that Manitobans need,” Jackson said.

“This is the very last thing we wanted to have happen. There is no way nurses in this province want to contemplate withdrawal of any function. We’re in a pandemic. We are an essential service and we are providing care with a finite number of nurses.”

Back in April, a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request from the NDP showed almost 1,300 nursing vacancies in Winnipeg, or about 17% of the nursing workforce in the capital.

Jackson, who sent a letter to union members on Friday detailing the next steps toward a possible strike action, said the critical nursing shortage in the province that existed prior to the pandemic has only been exacerbated over the past 15 months.

Nurses are being asked to work double shifts — 16-hour days — back-to-back, and in some cases, for several days in a row.

Nurses in the province have been without a new contract for more than four years and current talks are moving at a snail’s pace. The MNU has offered binding arbitration, but the province has refused the request.

“This back-and-forth with no resolve and a continued disrespect for work-life balance, cost of living and extreme staffing shortages resulting in the decline of nurses’ psychological and physical well-being, must end,” Jackson said.

“This is on them.”

A spokesperson for the government said Saturday that the province wants all nurses to have certainty and comfort of a new, long-term collective agreement as soon as possible, and claim there has been no hesitancy on that front.

“However, the health care bargaining unit restructuring process and necessary representation votes did not conclude until the end of 2019,” the spokesperson said “Since bargaining actually became possible, the representative health authority and MNU have been very actively bargaining in good faith, despite the intervening COVID-19 pandemic.

“Government understands that comprehensive proposals continue to be exchanged and discussed on a full range of monetary and non-monetary issues, including on special incentive arrangements for nurses most severely impacted by COVID surges. These arrangements would complement a special COVID-based memorandum of agreement already reached with MNU in early December 2020.”

Concessions have repeatedly been asked from nurses to the point where, earlier this month, talks were called off after what the union described as proposals that were “far too disturbing” given the current climate, according to Jackson.

“We’re still not seeing anything important on the bargaining table that deals with recruitment and retention,” she said, adding management still wants the ability to move nurses around the health-care system at its discretion.

She wonders how any nurse would look at the situation in Manitoba and agree to enter the workforce.

Hours after the letter was put forth to members, Jackson said the feedback has been positive.

“But nurses are worried about their patients and their care, and they’re worried about what it would look like,” Jackson said. “Nurses are also saying that this can’t continue, and they want to ensure the public knows that this is about patient care, and about our ability to continue to provide that.”

Jackson said most, if not all, of the government’s offers are predicated on crisis management to “disguise the government’s disastrous dismantling of health care.”

“The real-life and direct frontline experience, based on concerns and solutions offered by nurses, are being dismissed,” she said, “leaving nurses and patients to continue to deal with the tragic aftermath of decisions that ignore reality.”

Nurses are concerned for the post-pandemic future, as well, when they return from the frontlines to begin dealing with a massive backlog in surgical and other medical procedures that have been halted, at times, during the pandemic.

“What’s going to happen then?” Jackson said. “There’s just no end to it.

“Nurses are saying this has got to stop. We have to have a long-term plan in place. And right now, all we’re seeing is very short-term, Band-Aid solutions. That’s not where we need to be.”


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