Picket fences

Editorial by Bruce Wark

Your bosses are being jerks. You're feeling exploited, overworked and underpaid. You'd like to quit, but can't afford to and besides, you actually love your job and the city where you work. Your last resort? Join your fellow workers and hit the bricks to get a fair contract. That's what 600 IWK health care professionals did last week when they walked off the job seeking the same benefits as their counterparts at the QE II hospital down the street. Of course, as union president Joan Jessome points out, the IWK is a children's hospital while the QE II serves adults. "I've heard this so many times," Jessome says. "You work for children and that's a calling, so you should work for less."

The IWK strike lasted only one day. But it put pressure on the hospital and the provincial government to agree to the union's proposal for binding mediation, a process sometimes referred to as "baseball bargaining" because it's used to set major league players' salaries. If the two sides can't negotiate a contract, the mediator chooses one or the other of their final offers. That encourages both to compromise because the mediator will likely select the more reasonable offer. In this case, the health professionals got only part of what they wanted, but more than the IWK and the province had been willing to give. "I'm OK with the outcome," Jessome says. "But I'm not jumping for joy."

The outcome of the IWK dispute is obviously important to union members because they're getting more money, better benefits and moving a step closer to parity with their professional colleagues at other Halifax hospitals. But it's just as significant for the rest of us because it will help the IWK retain the highly-trained physiotherapists, lab technologists, social workers, biomedical engineers and respiratory therapists that every modern hospital depends on. It will also make it easier for the IWK to recruit professionals at a time when hospitals in other provinces and the US are competing for skilled staff.

Unfortunately though, the positive aspects of the settlement seemed to get lost in the media hysteria surrounding the one-day strike. Both Halifax papers condemned the workers after the hospital cancelled 59 surgeries and 474 outpatient appointments. The Daily News accused the union of using children as "bargaining chips," as though the IWK and the province bore no responsibility for the breakdown in talks. "For me, this is the bottom line," DN columnist David Rodenhiser huffed, "making children endure discomfort, fear and pain as a way to achieve contract concessions is unconscionable." Rodenhiser called on the province to ban health care strikes, a call echoed by the Herald's Marilla Stephenson. She predicted that Tories and Liberals will join forces in the legislature this fall to "make it so." Maybe, maybe not. When premier John Hamm tried it six years ago, nurses and other health workers threatened to resign en masse, the public supported the nurses and the government had to back down. It's hard to see why Rodney MacDonald would want to follow in Hamm's faltering footsteps, especially when last week's strike quickly led to a contract that's fair to workers and taxpayers and that helps protect the IWK's competitive position and quality of care. Besides, MacDonald's government already has plenty of power without banning the right to strike. For one thing, it can bring in back-to-work legislation to end any strike that seems to endanger people's lives.

Perhaps it's too much to expect newspaper commentators to write about Canada's labour relations system in a fair and balanced way. As in the IWK strike, they usually side with employers and condemn workers for going on strike to fight for fair wages and benefits. But who would you rather support, front-line health professionals who provide care for hundreds of sick children every day or the administrators and politicians who sit in their offices courting the media and counting loonies?

Not satisfied with our job? Email: brucew@thecoast.ca