The Ontario Nurses Association, the union representing about 15,000 nurses in the province, has been locked in a bitter pay dispute with the provincial government for the past three years. In 2015, the Liberal government negotiated a three-year deal under which the nurses would have had an increase of roughly 6 percent by the end of this year. But the provincial government is currently demanding an increase of 22 percent over the next three years and cutting more than $500 million from the nurses’ already-small end of the bargain.
After years of austerity, the Ontario government is happy to buck up to its nurses in their own right. But there are multiple issues that compel nurses to reject these pay increases and demand that the government restore funding to the health-care system.
First, no nurses earn as much as their Canadian counterparts. In fact, some of the nurses in Ontario earn even less than those in Alberta. Ontario nurses should be paid the same, as Canadian health-care workers earn.
A second issue is that a large part of the funding cut for the nurses’ deal was due to a change in how Ontario health-care workers are paid. The government used to define its health-care workers as “sector health-care workers.” This meant that they were considered general employees and paid on the same scale as general employees. Starting in 2019, they will no longer be considered a health-care worker and will be given a different scale and will start at a lower rate. This is the primary reason they are receiving these pay increases.
Of course, nurses were never general employees, but the change to this scale has affected the number of nurses in Ontario. Prior to this change, around 75 percent of nursing positions were classed as health-care workers. Now, that number is down to approximately 50 percent.
Third, nurses have the highest rate of job dissatisfaction among all Ontario health-care workers. In September, Ontario’s local health Integration Networks (which were created as an alternative to the old Tender Service System in 2007), released the results of their job satisfaction surveys. Some 94 percent of nurses responded that they were dissatisfied with their job, and 45 percent said they were actively seeking a job in another health-care sector.
In the past, nurses in Ontario could appeal their wages to the province’s Minister of Health. But now, nurses must pay their grievance money to the Ministry of Labour instead. The Ministry of Labour made it clear to all health-care workers that the wages issue is now theirs alone to resolve, and that nurses would no longer be treated as government employees.
There is a reason for this change. While nurses are the largest and most influential union in the province, the Ministry of Labour views them as “union busters” and uses them as a scapegoat for the problems that a government does not like.
Finally, one of the most effective ways to improve the quality of health care is to build new facilities and hire more nurses. However, since the budget cutbacks of 2014, Ontario has only built four new hospitals, including the one in Hamilton, where the strike took place. The government claims that it will build seven new hospitals by 2024 to handle growing demand. But nurses insist that more nurses are needed, and that this plan fails to address their main concerns.
After a three-year pay dispute, nurses in Ontario deserve a raise. However, that raise should only come after a thorough review of how nurses are compensated and new funding for health care.