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Talks between region and nurses at an impasse, with strike action a possibility

Without a contract since last summer, the Region of Waterloo’s 131 Public Health nurses are on the verge of taking strike action.

The nurses work all over the region, including Wellesley and Woolwich townships, delivering services in a variety of capacities from infectious disease control to working in sexual health clinics. Contract negotiations have become contentious.

Negotiations for the new employment contracts came to a close on Feb. 28 without an agreement after the Ontario Nurses’ Association wasn’t happy with the offer from the region. ONA representatives say the offer they received would have required too many cuts to get a modest improvement in working conditions. Cuts in areas like medication benefits, retirement benefits, sick leave provisions and similar items.

According to Andy Summers, a vice-president at the ONA, the next step is mediation. If that fails, Summers says the strike action deadline is Mar. 29, but the nurses’ association doesn’t want it to come to that.

“The next step is we go to formal mediation with the Labour Board scheduled for Mar. 27,” he said. “Before we get to mediation, we are imploring the employer to come and sit down and talk to us. That is our number-one thing. Nurses care deeply about their patients, and they want to get to work. Going on strike isn’t something they want to have to do. If the mediator isn’t able to help us out, the nurses are going to be asked what they want to do.”

Both sides have different takes on the negotiations, which ended on Feb. 28.

Dr. Liana Nolan, medical officer of health and commissioner of Public Health at the region, says she believes a resolution without a strike is possible.

“Our perspective is that we remain optimistic, talks are ongoing and we are still at the table, so that is great. We value the work of the nurses and they do great work for us and we certainly appreciate what they do,” she said, adding she had heard what the ONA has been saying about the negotiations. “I have read (their press releases) and clearly my point of view is different. I would characterize what is going on as ‘talks are ongoing.’ We haven’t really hit an impasse yet. My key message is that we are remaining optimistic.”

Summers is in disagreement. The ONA believes the region is making unreasonable demands in the contract offer and he says they do not have an open ear to counteroffers.

“I am very aware that negotiations between employees and employers can become tenuous at the best of times, but it just seems that this round of negotiations with the Public Health department have been the most disrespectful that we have been familiar with in some time,” he said. “They said, ‘take it or leave it. That is our offer,’ then, they left the room. We asked if they would be willing to listen to our side and they said no. It wasn’t even a negotiation. That made it very difficult because we didn’t have anywhere to go.”

Nolan says the two parties are still at the table, but the region is still getting ready for strike action should it begin at the end of the month.

“As can be expected, preparations are underway in the event that things progress (to a strike) so we have an understanding of what priority services would continue in the event of a strike, but that is standard practice,” she said. “As I said, we remain optimistic. That is where we are at right now.”

Mediation begins on Mar. 27, with a strike deadline of Mar. 29.

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