By Matt Davidson and Doug Nesbitt
Despite the bitter cold, morale was good on the Peterborough picket lines of the Ontario-wide CCAC workers strike.
The Peterborough nurses are part of a 3,000-strong strike of healthcare workers across the province at nine of the ten province’s Community Care Access Centres. All workers on strike are members of the Ontario Nurses’ Association. Their jobs involve the coordination of patient care between hospitals, long-term care, rehabilitation centres, therapy, and home care.
Ann Rowley, president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association bargaining unit representing Central East CCAC workers (including Peterborough), says the strike is essential about equal pay for equal work.
Like ONA members in Ontario hospitals across the province, the workers are looking for 1.4 percent annual pay increases, as well as a two-year contract. “There is nothing else being discussed at the table other than the 1.4 percent increase, explains Rowley. “Management offered, and we accepted, status quo for everything else, such as mileage rates, shift premiums, etc. We didn’t make any concessions. All local issues were resolved as well.”
The last contract, which expired March 2014, was over three years. “We took two zeroes in our last contract,” says Rowley of their previous three-year contract. The third year saw a 2.7% wage increase. “We weren’t going to accept that again.”
Our biggest concern is our patients. We don’t want to be on strike. We want to be back at work. We didn’t become nurses to walk on picket lines, but to care for people.
“Management also wanted to dismantle our benefit package. We agreed to no increases, but ultimately prevented cuts from happening.” This included the elimination of any compensation for redeploying workers to different parts of the province.
One of the more worrying concerns for healthcare was management’s effort to remove the professional responsibility clause from the contract. Rowley says this would mean the employer could not be held to account for delivering decent care.
A week into the strike, Rowley says the employer has made no move to return to the table. But ONA is ready to bargain. “We keep saying that we’re ready to go back if a fair offer is made,” exclaims Rowley. “Our biggest concern is our patients. We don’t want to be on strike. We want to be back at work. We didn’t become nurses to walk on picket lines, but to care for people.”
Reports are that CCAC is not agreeing to the modest demands, instead offering a lump sum payment for a new contract. However, CCAC has over a dozen CEOs across the province and most have received substantial pay increases. For example, CEO Richard Joly of the North East CCAC saw his pay increase from $227,000 in 2010 to $288,000 in 2013. For a longer view, the CEO of North West CCAC, Tuija Puiras has seen their pay increase from $106,000 in 2004 to $204,000 in 2013.
On the line
Meanwhile, pickets in Peterborough have gained confidence since the start of the strike on January 27. Initially uncomfortable with stopping vehicles, the wait is now close to three hours as each car is held up for 15 minutes. “Our union helped us understand that we’ll be out here longer if we let work continue as usual in the office” said one picket.
Support has also been good. Natalie, one of the pickets, says “I feel that our co-workers in CUPE [Canadian Union of Public Employees] are very supportive.” Despite that support, Natalie points out that pickets also face real danger. “We were chatting with a person and they had waited their fifteen minutes and were ready to go, and the next car behind them on the road pulled in and gunned it, and nearly hit me and one of the other girls who had to jump out of the way. But no one got hurt.”
Today, pickets were up at 6am, but managers were already at work. Rumour is some are sleeping inside. It has been confirmed that managers have been put up in a hotel across the street and going to work at 5:30am. “Our healthcare dollars are being spent on hotel rooms rather than on supporting healthcare workers,” said another picket. Rowley says some managers haven’t been home in a week but “they are getting paid a lot of overtime.”
The CEOs keep saying that there is little impact with us gone, but how can that be?
But managers are not healthcare workers.
“Management without healthcare backgrounds have been authorizing care while we have been on strike. As a result, patients aren’t getting the best care and a lot of money is being spent unnecessarily. The CEOs keep saying that there is little impact with us gone, but how can that be? There are five thousand nurses in our region, versus maybe fifty managers. How can management do all the assessments properly? Lakeridge Health Oshawa [Oshawa hospital] is operating on a Code Orange, which normally signifies a major disaster, because of the shortage of nurses.”
Ontario healthcare in crisis
The strike puts into perspective management’s priorities for Ontario healthcare. As CEOs get enormous pay raises while forcing workers to strike for a modest 1.4 percent annual pay bump, the Ontario Liberals have subjected healthcare funding to a serious funding squeeze while advancing the privatization of services and enormously wasteful P3 hospital construction.
We’re all out here doing this for them as well so we can get them the services they need and have the money spent for the CCACs in the proper way. And that’s for the patients, not the CEOs.
As with healthcare in general, the Ontario Liberals are talking out of both sides of their mouths on the CCAC strike. Liberal MPP Kathryn McGarry – a former care coordinator herself – says the government has no responsibility in the matter because it is dispute between the union and management. But the Minister of Health Eric Hoskins has been pushing healthcare employers and unions to “control costs” in the wake of imposing fee cuts on doctors because of failed negotiations.
Protests and strikes by healthcare workers across the province, especially underpaid personal support workers, have been bubbling in recent years. In contrast to the politicians and CEOs, the priorities of healthcare workers are clear.
“We’re really worried about the public and the patients,” says a Peterborough picket. “We’re all out here doing this for them as well so we can get them the services they need and have the money spent for the CCACs in the proper way. And that’s for the patients, not the CEOs.”