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Settlement puts Nova Scotia nursing home workers in the driver’s seat

May 31, 1999 08:59 PM
 

All eyes were on nursing home workers in Nova Scotia this April as they sat down for the first time ever and negotiated with the provincial government as a single entity. What emerged from the 32-hour mediated session was a unique agreement that, through several twists and turns, fulfilled all of CUPE’s five key proposals, including wage parity with the acute care sector.

“I am very pleased with this agreement,” says Maureen Ethier, a member of the provincial bargaining committee and president of CUPE 2774. “We laid out our goals a couple of years ago and this agreement comes very close to hitting all of our targets.”

 

Provincial bargaining coordinator for the nursing homes Kelly Murray says the agreement will have far reaching implications for unions across the country as it is the first time ever that a provincial government has sat at a table with nursing home workers.

 

“As our five major issues were all funding related, we knew that the only way to get what we wanted was to convince the government to sit down and deal with us as a single entity,” Murray says.

 

The five issues were confirmed four years ago at the annual nursing homes convention. “We chose issues that were justifiable in the public eye, and we were successful in bringing the public on-side,” Murray explains.

 

Along with wage parity with hospital workers, nursing home workers wanted improvements to resident/staff ratios, language on job security, a defined benefit pension plan, and a guarantee that personal care workers would keep their jobs should the government introduce mandatory training.

 

Last year CUPE members at 33 hospitals in Nova Scotia were granted wage parity with employees at the province’s flagship hospital, the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.

 

Then the government granted wage parity with the acute care sector to certain nursing home employees — nurses, licensed practical nurses, therapists and dieticians.

 

And that’s where the government’s wage parity process ended, leaving personal care workers, laundry and housekeeping aides, cooks, activity workers and maintenance staff to do battle home by home for what should have been a fair deal for all.

 

“We were only able to achieve what we did because nursing home workers in Nova Scotia were so well organized, so well educated, and so determined,” says Murray.

 

Much of the past three years was spent mobilizing the membership. Many an evening was spent meeting in members’ homes, in union halls and at Tim Horton’s.

 

“Once [members] crossed the threshold and started to believe in the five proposals, there was no holding them back – they were like a steamroller rolling down a hill,” says Murray. “If you prepare well enough you don’t have to use the strike weapon at all. They know you’re serious.”

 

Betty Jean Sutherland, president of CUPE 2330 and also a member of the provincial bargaining committee, says some of the members were disappointed that the agreement was bottom loaded, with wage parity being achieved in an extended six-month period added on at the end of the contract.

 

“A lot of the members have been misused and undervalued all these years, and they wanted parity up front,” she says. “We fought for hours to try and get the money up front, but [the government’s] heels were dug in. The money wasn’t there. The only way to get it was to go outside the time frame.”

 

In the extended period, April to September 2001, personal care workers will receive raises of 8.2 per cent and all other classifications will receive an additional 6 per cent. “That’s unheard of in this province,” says Murray. “Nobody has ever gotten that before. It’s hard enough to get that kind of an increase over the life of a full contract.” He adds that because personal care workers were on the bottom tier, it was important to give them a push in the right direction.

 

“Our goal was to take them from the back seat into the front seat.”

At the highest paid nursing home in the province, Armview Estates in Halifax, personal care workers will see only a 20-cent raise in the beginning of the contract. But CUPE 2784 president Bev Connors says members are pleased because they can see that by the end of the package they will be doing okay.

 

“Many of them are just glad to see that everyone will be earning the same rate.” she says. “It creates a good feeling to see other people making seven something an hour come up to where we are.”

 

She says that the increase in wages should make nursing homes a more attractive place to work. “All of the homes in my area are short-staffed,” she explains. “The workload in nursing homes has become so hard. We don’t have light care anymore, since families are being encouraged to take advantage of home care.”

 

She says the difficulty of the work scares new staff away: “We lose a lot of them at the orientation sessions, “ she laughs. But she is hopeful that increased wages will reverse this trend.

 

She says members are also aware of the significance of this round of bargaining. “They know that the next time they go to the table the door is open – and we will achieve another goal at that time.”

 

Sutherland heartily agrees. “In the year 2001 our members will have more power than they’ve ever had in the history of bargaining,” she claims, pointing out that nursing home bargaining will follow right on the heels of hospital bargaining. “Hospital workers will have completed their job evaluations and a lot of changes will be occurring. And nursing home workers will be tied to those changes.”

 

Gail McNeil