It was a banner day last weekend for the province’s largest nurses’ union, the Quebec Interpersonal Health Federation (FIQ). After a year of tense negotiations with the provincial government, the FIQ reached an agreement in principle, which will provide significant gains to the 58,000 members of the union.
The agreement stipulates an annual 3.45 per cent pay increase for shift work, and a two per cent pay increase per year for nurses working regular day shifts in CLSCs (local community service centres) and other public institutions.
The 3.45 per cent raise comes as a result of the approximately 15 minutes that nurses typically spend at the end of their shifts exchanging patient information with the next nurse on duty. Remuneration and recognition were two important tenets during negotiations, according to FIQ Vice-President Michele Boisclair.
“Time worked is supposed to be time paid, and we’ve been fighting for that for 30 years,” she said. “Now at least our nurses will be recognized and paid for it.”
Another gain for the union was the government’s commitment to reduce the use of privatized nurses by 40 per cent. Nurses from such agencies can earn up to 20 to 25 per cent more than unionized workers. But Boisclair said there are problems with using these private companies.
“The employers who are going through a private agency are dividing the system. They are asking to have labour on a day-to-day basis, which not only limits stability but reduces the quality of care,” Boisclair said. “How can the government be willing to pay more for the care given by these agencies, yet not give better conditions to those supporting the public health care system?”
There was tension between the FIQ and the Health Ministry until a summer cabinet reshuffling made Michelle Courchesne the new Treasury Board president. According to Boisclair, this was a turning point for negotiations. Courchesne has been credited as having the “political will” to finally reach the five-year deal.
“Since [Courchesne’s] nomination we’ve seen a big difference,” Boisclair said. “Before it was always ‘no, no,’ and they never gave anything. Now we have been able to reach our goals.”
The agreement did not materialize without compromises. However, according to Boisclair, the FIQ originally lobbied for the implementation of a four-day workweek for all members. The Health Ministry, however, opposed this motion. Boisclair claimed that the fight is not over.
“Right now, we’re just going to see what kind of schedule works, while trying to reduce the amount of days worked per week, and the amount of weeks worked per year,” she said. “It will be done locally, and we’ll see have to wait and see what the results will be.”
For the past monts, the FIQ received support from more than 600 health organization and other labour groups, including the Canadian Federation of Nurses Union, and the International organization in Solidarity for the Labour Movement.
“That was a major thing, the fact that they supported us,” Boisclair said. “They knew that we were trying to change something to be there for our patients and the public health care system. It was a good message to the government that things need to change.”
Quebec Health Minister Yves Bolduc said in a press release that the deal “is going to help the nurses, it’s going to help the doctors, but mainly it’s going to help the patients.”
Mélanie Lavoie-Tremblay, an assistant professor in the McGill’s School of Nursing, agreed.
“The retention of nurses, new and old, is very important. There are good strategies out there now, but we need new ones as well,” she said. “One strategy won’t be enough to foster the retention of this new generation of nurses.”
Lavoie-Tremblay was happy with the agreement, and stated that the gains would match the desires of most nurses at the ground level.
“Nurses are calling for more rewards, meaning a good pay and being paid for the work they are doing,” she said. “A lot of nurses don’t have access to training due to their schedules, so it’s great that they got so much from this agreement.”
The agreement in principle was presented to union delegates last Thursday and Friday. The details of the deal will be given to the nurses before a vote.