VANCOUVER - The union representing British Columbia's 30,000 nurses is throwing a spotlight on what it argues is declining patient care as it appeals for public support to hire thousands of additional workers in the latest round of contract negotiations.
Rather than pushing for any wage hikes, the union is demanding 2,000 additional nurses. It says it's up to their employer to come up with the money to pay for them.
Union president Debra McPherson outlined the nurses' position Monday at the union's annual convention in Vancouver, where she unveiled a television, radio and newspaper ad campaign that begins this week.
McPherson was lauded with a standing ovation after describing staff shortages, growing workloads and what she described as the stress nurses endure watching patients "slip through the cracks."
"It breaks my heart to hear nurses talk about their conditions of practice," McPherson told the convention.
"To hear them talk about contemplating suicide rather than coming to work. To hear them talk about being afraid that their clients will die or suffer as a result of their inability to deliver care."
The nurses' current two-year contract expires on March 31. The union and the nurses' employer have been at the table for 12 days since talks began in late January.
The negotiations come at the same time the B.C.'s 41,000 teachers have been battling with the province over their own expired contract, culminating last week in a three-day walkout. The teachers also argue their workplace conditions are deteriorating, but their demands have largely focused on a 15 per cent wage increase.
Both sets of negotiations are happening as the province seeks to rein in spending growth and ensure any new public-sector contracts don't cost the government additional money.
For teachers, that has meant adhering to what the province has called its "net-zero" mandate, in which no new money can be added to existing contracts. That means any increases to wages or benefits must be offset by concessions elsewhere, and it's amounted to a wage freeze for most of the 130 public-sector unions it's been applied to.
Nurses, however, are bargaining under a new system called the "co-operative gains" model, which the province intends to impose on all public-sector contracts that end any time in 2012 and beyond. The model allows for pay increases or other improvements to contracts, as long they are funded by savings elsewhere in a department's overall budget, such as through efficiencies or improved productivity.
The nurses union is already resisting that approach. McPherson said it will be impossible to hire more nurses without more money.
"What we're saying is, we're not sure where we're going to find those productivity gains," McPherson said in an interview. "And even if we can't, we want those nurses. We have to have them to have safe patient care."
McPherson said the number of nurses the union wants is based on appropriate patient-staff ratios, and said those jobs could be filled by three new graduating classes. It would take time to phase in the new workers, she said, which is why the union would prefer to sign a four-year contract.
The union's previous contract, signed in 2009, gave nurses wage increases of three per cent over each of the past two years.
Under the government's new bargaining mandate, the employer can only offer to fund new staff if the cost is offset by savings found somewhere else.
Both the health minister and the finance minister declined to comment on the nurses' contract negotiations Monday, referring the issue instead to the Health Employers Association of B.C.
"Productivity doesn't necessarily means working harder; it most-often means working smarter," said Michael Marchbank, the association's president.
"There may be ways we can find some efficiencies that can ... fund some modest wage increases or other improvements to the collective agreement."
Marchbank wouldn't say whether that could also include hiring additional staff. He said the details, including the length of the contract, will be worked out over the bargaining table.
He said the employers association will listen and try to understand the nurses' concerns over workload issues.
"They tend to be driven by demand, which isn't always predictable," he said.
The union's ad campaign depicts nurses struggling to hold up a teetering tower, representing the hospital system. McPherson showed off a green scarf embossed with the words "safe patient care equals safe staffing" that she encouraged union members to wear.
"We've been waiting for the right time on this one, so that it coincides with where we are in our bargaining so that we can start to drive our agenda publicly," she said.
It won't be difficult garnering public support for the cause of high-quality health care, said industrial relations prof. Mark Thompson, who teaches in the University of British Columbia's business school.
But he suggested the move is more about politics than forcing the government to hire such a massive quantity of new staff.
"That is a heck of a lot of money; they're not going to find those kinds of savings," he said.
"I think it's kind of a shot across the government's bow to re-open this issue which has been quiet for quite a while."