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Nurses standing up for patient care

Nurses standing up for patient care in Manitoba

Sandi Mowat has been a registered nurse for thirty-five years, and she is the president of the Manitoba Nurses Union (MNU). The current government in the province is committed to transforming the delivery of health care, but the experiences of MNU members show that the changes to the system so far have not been good for patients, have not been good for nurses, and have not been good for the quality of patient care. In response, nurses in Manitoba are taking a number of approaches to stand up for patient care and to oppose the cuts. Scott Neigh interviews Mowat about the MNU, about the current political moment and what it means for health care in Manitoba, and about what nurses are doing in response -- including the rally they will be holding outside the provincial legislature in Winnipeg on May 2.

When the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Pallister was elected in Manitoba in 2016 after more than a decade and a half of NDP rule, it was no surprise that their agenda included a number of different kinds of neoliberal austerity measures -- budget cuts, privatization, and so on. This has included plans to significantly transform how health care is delivered. The changes so far have particularly targeted Winnipeg, with the closure of emergency rooms, staffing cuts of various sorts, and a range of other elements of the system that have been closed, amalgamated, and reorganized. A second phase of the transformation is expected later this year or next year. As well, as is true in many jurisdictions across the country, there has been ongoing creeping privatization via incrementally de-listing services that were previously covered.

The government rhetoric accompanying changes in health-care delivery has generally claimed that they will both save money and improve care. The MNU represents 97 per cent of nurses in Manitoba, and has a total of more than 12,000 members. Mowat says that the changes, amalgamations, and cuts in the health-care system may be saving money, but the experience of these members who actually do the work to deliver frontline services is that they most definitely are not improving the quality of patient care. The impacts vary from worksite to worksite, but overall they mean that nurses are being continually asked to do more with less. In some places, where health-care aides have been cut, they are having to add non-nursing duties to their workload, and in other places there just aren't enough nurses. Since January, according to Mowat, workloads are up, overtime is up, sick time is up, and morale is decisively down.

Defending high-quality public services is a tough mission in this neolibera era. But the MNU can look to some impressive struggles in its history -- most notably a three-week strike in 1991 that won, among other things, a mechanism for frontline nurses to have input into the details of patient care that is still an important component of their collective agreements to this day. That strike was an early landmark in Mowat's involvement in the union, and it is still the longest strike by nurses in Canadian history.

In the current moment, the union is speaking up in defence of patient care in a number of ways. The union has been critical of the inadequate communication from the government and the employer about the changes, so a central part of their response is doing everything they can to keep nurses informed about what's happening and what the impacts are. Though all unions are having a harder time than might have been true in earlier decades getting members to meetings, the nurses union is finding social media to be an effective way of keeping members informed and engaged, and they have also developed their own smartphone app for communicating directly with nurses across the province. They are also in the middle of a comprehensive program to build skills related to member engagement among local union leadership in every worksite in the province.

Part of the goal in doing this communication and engagement with members is making sure that members have the tools to speak out on issues that matter to them. Starting last June, the union has encouraged members to wear white to work every Wednesday as a visible sign in the workplace of their opposition to cuts and support for top-notch patient care, in part with the idea that this visibility will create opportunities to talk about the issues with other people. They have made use of petition-like tools in a few different ways, including their Put Patients First website and campaign, to make it as easy as possible for both overworked nurses themselves and busy Manitobans from all walks of life to express their opposition to the cuts. And the next item on their agenda is a rally at the provincial legislature in Winnipeg on May 2. They expect more than 500 nurses will be there, and they welcome anyone else who wants to send the government a message that they must change their agenda, stop the cuts, and start to truly put patients first.

Image: Modified from an image that is used with the permission of the Manitoba Nurses Union.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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