Months after turning down two tentative agreements, and weeks after 92 per cent overall gave their union a mandate to strike, New Brunswick nurses voted this past week to accept a new collective agreement. The details will be released after the new agreement is signed by their New Brunswick Nurses Union (NBNU) and the government. The nurses’ previous five-year contract ended in December 2018 and the new one ends in December 2023.
NBNU president Paula Doucet is in her third term. She comes from a strong union background: her father Blair Doucet was president of Local 5385 of the United Steelworkers for 15 years before leading the New Brunswick Federation of Labour from 1999 to 2005. Doucet became active in her union shortly after starting her nursing career at the Chaleur Regional Hospital 25 years ago and was soon elected president of her local. She was elected NBNU president in 2015. The NB Media Co-op interviewed Paula Doucet on December 22.
“The CUPE strike really set the stage for a lot of the public sector unions to build that strength and solidarity to go up against this PC majority government to say: ‘We’re not going to just sit back and take what you’re dishing out.'”
NB Media Co-op: In March this year, you and the NBNU issued a joint statement with other public sector unions in New Brunswick calling on premier Higgs to invest in public services. Considering the CUPE strike this year, how important is solidarity with other public sector unions moving forward?
Paula Doucet: Solidarity is of the utmost importance. I think history has been made in this province, with the amount of labour unrest this year. With so much labour unrest, you need to look at the common denominator. And in this case, it was our majority government that is openly not labour friendly.
CUPE, the nurses, the New Brunswick Union (NBU), the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), we all joined forces under the umbrella of the Federation of Labour. Even those unions that weren’t affiliates of the Federation, we would meet on a regular basis to have discussions about how we move the agenda of public service forward.
The other big player was the Teachers Federation. They have never really been part of the Federation of Labour but were very active and wanting to join forces with the other public sector unions because they saw the merit in being one voice to fight back against a majority government and the austerity measures that they wanted to implement.
It was unfortunate that our brothers and sisters of CUPE had 16 days on the picket line. But I think they really set the stage for a lot of the public sector unions to build that strength and solidarity to go up against this PC majority government to say: “We’re not going to just sit back and take what you’re dishing out.”
It took three tentative agreement attempts before we ratified just last week. So, to me, that spoke volumes that the registered nurses, nurse practitioners, and in this case, the licensed practical nurses of New Brunswick said: “We are going to stay together. We know that we have the strength and solidarity of other unions.” It was important to be part of this.
NB Media Co-op: On October 7, the Higgs government announced unilaterally that it was moving the Licensed Practical Nurses from CUPE local 1252 over to the nurses’ union. What is the situation of the LPNs right now? Are they covered under this new agreement, or are they still outstanding?
Paula Doucet. We are working currently with Treasury Board to get a transfer agreement in place for the LPNs so that they don’t fall through the cracks. However, we were able to negotiate a wage increase for them and once the tentative agreement gets signed, they will fall under a lot of the articles within the nurses Part III collective agreement.
Going back to October 7, I thought the timing was very undermining by this government, because CUPE 1252 was in a strike position. It was a very shady move by the government. We had just announced, the day before, the second rejection to a tentative agreement. And then I was given less than 24 hours’ notice that the 2,100 LPNs within Part III were going to be reclassified from patient service under the CUPE collective agreement to nursing under the Part III nurses’ collective agreement.
So, I think the government did this out of spite. I’ve actually said, to some in government, that I think they did this thinking that we would falter. But that’s one thing about nurses in this province, we can pivot on a dime, and we reevaluate the situation, and then we just, you know, trudge ahead, and that’s what we did. We built tremendous solidarity.
The move to take 2,100 members out of CUPE 1252 was a direct blow to CUPE. But one of the things about being in a small province and belonging to the Federation of Labour is that I was able to have a good conversation with the CUPE representatives, to let them know that we and myself had absolutely no hand in this decision that the government made, but that we could continue to work together and build that solidarity against the majority PC government.
“Nursing vacancies are a huge hole in our system. We’re looking now at upwards of 1,300 vacancies for registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and nurse practitioners.”
NB Media Co-op: You recently made a statement that the new agreement for nurses is not enough to address the severe recruitment and retention crisis. In July, figures were released that there were 854 vacant nursing positions, up 154 since April. What is it going to take, to get more nurses into the system in New Brunswick?
Paula Doucet: I wish I had that magic answer. It’s a multitude of issues: it’s working conditions, it’s expectations, it’s delivery of health care. It’s fair renumeration, especially across our Atlantic counterparts. And it’s just a cultural change at the facility levels of what the expectation is of health care workers.
Those numbers you quoted from back in July have been updated recently. With the addition of the licensed practical nurses to the NBNU in October, we’re looking now at upwards of 1,300 vacancies for registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and nurse practitioners. It’s a huge hole in our system.
We also look at the number of overtime hours worked. We have the data from the first six months of 2021, we’re slowly getting the data from the latter part of 2021. But already, we know that with the trajectory, it’s going to be almost doubled, if not more, of the overtime hours that nurses worked last year.
There’s been a very punitive approach over the years. For instance, when it came to sick leave, or taking time off, or trying to access vacation time, nurses were always meant to feel guilty for leaving their unit short, and their co-workers working short. We all need our breaks. We’re human, we need that break away from the stressors, and then throw the pandemic on top of everything, right?
So, there’s a lot of issues that need to be addressed to make the province of New Brunswick be more attractive to new graduates or those that potentially are looking to come home. Many years ago, we didn’t have the shortage that we have now. So many nurses when they graduated went elsewhere– they either went to the United States or across Canada. And now some of them are looking to return, back to the east coast. We need to attract those experienced nurses back to our province.
“We’re continuing to push for the federal government to recognize violence against healthcare workers to be a criminal act, to fall under the Criminal Code.”
NB Media Co-op:I heard you speak about three years ago, when you said that a big focus of your presidency was addressing violence in the workplace. You noted that nurses have the highest percentage of violence in the workplace, among other occupational groups. Is the situation ongoing?
Paula Doucet: Yes, I think it’s going to be an ongoing situation for the future. I am happy to report that back in October 2017, changes were made to the Occupational Health and Safety Act recognizing workplace violence as a workplace hazard. It gives us the accountability back to the employers to ensure that they do risk assessments and ensure that they are putting measures in place to the utmost to protect the workers in the workplace.
Over the last three years, a lot of my time and energy has been spent trying to get collective agreements for the nurses. But now that we’ve got two tentative agreements ratified and put behind us, I’ve got a bit of a breathing space where I can shift my focus on some of the bigger issues that remain and still need the attention.
We all know that this pandemic has really shone a light on the cracks within our system. People are looking for immediate satisfaction and gratification, and when they don’t get it, or they don’t get answers, they lash out at those in front of them. In this case it’s been a lot of health care workers. We’re continuing to push, even through our national body the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, for the federal government to recognize violence against healthcare workers to be a criminal act, to fall under the Criminal Code.
A lot of things need to change. But we continue, and I personally continue, to advocate for safer workplaces for all workers in this province. Everybody deserves to go to work and know that they are protected, and that there are measures in place to provide them with the utmost safety.
NB Media Co-op: Paula, do you have any final comments?
Paula Doucet: Yes, I would like to say to your readers and to the general public: please heed the warnings of health care professionals. We’re going two years into this global pandemic and our public health nurses–who have their main focus to keep our community safe–have been going above and beyond. They are doing everything within their power to ensure that we have safe communities.
Right now, with this new Omicron variant, we’re faltering. People are getting COVID fatigue and COVID tired, but it’s of the utmost importance now for us to be very diligent: vigilant in our hand washing or distancing, our limitations of going out, getting the vaccine if we can, and really trying to mitigate the spread of this terrible virus. This has nothing to do with the union, but I think it must be said that these nurses are out there every day trying to ensure our safety.
Susan O’Donnell writes for the NB Media Co-op.
Note: this story was clarified several hours after posting. The strike vote by the NBNU members overall was 92 percent: 96 percent by nurse managers and nurse supervisors, 91 percent by Part III nurses (Horizon, Vitalité and Extramural) and 89 percent by nursing home nurses.