Here We Go Again

Richard phoned me from work a little while ago, worried because it looks like unionized Manitoba nurses are headed for a strike vote within days. I take care of all of the houshold financial stuff, so he wasn’t sure how we would be fixed for meeting bill payments and such in the event of a strike.  He also wanted to give me lots of warning, as he knows that threats to our financial situation are guaranteed to send me into mega panic mode.  Or they were.  I’m over that now, and have a very cool head about such things these days, but there was a time …

We’ll be fine, and a strike can’t last long with the way things are currently in the health care system.  But this does bring back memories of 1991 when we weren’t so fine during a month-long nurses’ strike.  It came at the worst possible moment for us, right at the moment when we were starting to make the transition to a new life, after two ugly  divorces, from which we both walked away with very little, for the sake of mimimizing the ugliness as much as possible.  Freedom and peace can’t be measured in dollars and cents, and we both chose those over property.  With no regrets, I might add, except right at the very beginning, thanks to the strike.

People often think that 1991 was the first nurses’ strike in this province, but it wasn’t.  And I can tell you that for certain, as I was one of the small group of nurses involved in the very first one in 1986.  Our facility was the only one to hit the picket line at that time, and it was an extremely gutsy move, considering our small number.  But the offer from the owners of our facility was so insulting that we absolutely had to take action.  They wanted to roll our wages back 7%, and take away the few benefits that we had at that time.  We were part of the Manitoba Nurses’ Union, but being a privately owned facility, we had a separate contract from most of the nurses in the province, and far fewer benefits than the majority.  In fact, apart from the job security that a union affords, we had very little indeed in the way of benefits.

So, come strike day, twenty-five of the twenty-eight nurses on staff hit the picket line at the crack of dawn.  The numbers dwindled throughout the day as some chickened out,  or were dragged off  the line by irate husbands.  Male evolution occurs slowly in some areas, sadly.  So, by early evening we were down to about six, trudging back and forth in pairs, across the three entrances to the grounds.  Six became three before dark fell, but thankfully our numbers were bolstered by husbands who believed in our cause.  Not mine at the time, naturally, as, well, walking was too much effort, but I ended up with the best walking partner ever for the rest of that long, cold night.  There’s nothing like being bent over double laughing to make time pass.  Thanks, Jamie, wherever you are now! 🙂  We eventually had to call it a night in the wee hours of the morning as we were all beyond exhausted.  But a few hours later we were back at our posts, now just two, as our third walker had been called back to the negotiation table.

But then the coolest thing happened.  I glanced over towards the main doors and saw the Administrator lift her coffee cup at me in an obvious salute of solidarity.  She knew why we were out there and I’m sure that she’d have joined us if she could have.  Shortly after, the front doors opened wide, and out came a herd of residents to walk with us.  And then I wept.  And wept.  And wept.  We had taken so much flack about not caring about those we were paid to care for, some of which had been really ugly, so it meant the world to us to have those we cared for joining us on the line.   They knew that we didn’t abandon them because we didn’t care, and decided to give us something back by letting us know that they cared for us just as much.  And that is one of the memories from my nursing career that will always stay with me.  In hindsight, I wish that I had walked across the street, to get an observer’s view of our group.  What a sight it must have been – motorized wheelchairs and scooters, regular wheelchairs being propelled by their occupants or pushed by other residents, and other chair occupants sitting stationary, blocking the parking lot entrances, waving signs and shouting.  Ah, memories!

I don’t know if it was the residents who swung things for us, or if the owners just caved in out of shock because we dared to call their bluff.   But either way, things were settled by the end of that day and I was one of three nurses who went in for the first post-strike shift the next day.  We were naturally a little nervous as not everyone had been on our side, including the Director of Nursing, who took the strike as a personal insult, for some bizarre reason.  Nothing against you, dear, just the owners.  But the Administrator met each of us with a warm handshake and “welcome back”, and she came to see me privately later to tell me how proud she was of me for having the guts to be one of the three who saw the cause through to the end.  I always thought that the woman walked on water anyway, as she was just that kind of person, but she went up even more notches in my estimation that day!

So, having said all of that, you’d think that I’d be in agreement with the union about this strike vote.  Well, I’m not.  I suppose that some of the concerns have some merit, but they’re not worth a strike by the vast majority of nurses working in this province.  Nobody wins in the event of a strike of this magnitude.  Certainly not the patients in all of the hospitals, and most of the nursing homes in the province.  And certainly not the staff, assuming that the strike drags on for more than a day or two.  Lost wages and benefits now are not compensated for long-term after a contract is settled, especially not when we’re talking about cents per hour being the sticking point.  I strongly disagree with some of the other points, too, but I won’t tackle each of them individually here.  Yes, nurses do deserve fair pay, benefits, and respect, but flexibility on their side is a must in the current climate, too.

But whatever happens, we’ll be fine.  We always are.

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