TORONTO — The Ontario Nurses' Association started negotiating a new contract Monday for hospital nurses and the union is planning to take its push for higher wages beyond the bargaining table.
The nurses, and other broader public sector workers, have been subject for three years to a wage restraint law known as Bill 124, which capped increases at one per cent a year.
Bernie Robinson, the interim president of the ONA, said the last contract left nurses feeling disrespected and devalued.
"Safe to say that we are looking for far more," she said during a break from negotiations.
"We're looking for respectful wage increases, and basically to be able to retain nurses so that we can have the staff there to improve working conditions and improve care for patients."
An Ontario court found Bill 124 unconstitutional late last year, but the government has filed a notice of intent to appeal.
As talks begin, the union is planning a series of "escalating actions," starting with having nurses wear stickers while at work that highlight the bargaining priorities of better wages, better staffing and better care.
Late next month, nurses will begin holding information pickets at hospitals as well as at offices of members of provincial parliament. ONA is planning a protest on March 2 outside the Toronto hotel where bargaining is taking place.
"You're going to see more protests, more pickets across the province as our nurses get louder," Robinson said.
The nurses do not have the right to strike and Robinson says they will not be engaging in illegal walkouts.
The Ontario Hospital Association has said it greatly values nurses and hopes to achieve a "voluntarily, mutually agreed-upon collective agreement."
Talks are set to take place all this week and the last two days in February. The two sides have agreed to take any outstanding issues beyond those days to mediation March 1 and 2, and if that doesn't produce a contract, they have agreed to arbitration on May 2 and 3.
Teachers are also currently in bargaining with the government for their first post-Bill 124 contracts. Education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees late last year negotiated a $1-per-hour raise each year, or about 3.59 per cent annually, for the average worker.
Hospital nurses currently earn $34.24 an hour as a starting salary, per their last contract, and are subject to a grid that goes up to 25 years, when they can earn $49.02 an hour. The current contract expires March 31.
Robinson is not divulging the specific proposals the ONA will make at the bargaining table, but said she will also be pushing for improved policies on vacation, workloads and work-life balance, as they will also help with staff recruitment and retention.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press