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The striking nurses' union's dirty little secret

It took the mere hint of the Manitoba Nurses Union's dirty little secret to send their president rushing to the ramparts to create a diversion.

The MNU is threatening a strike if they don't get 10 percent over two years (that's only twice the current rate of inflation). But union Prexy Maureen Hancharyk knows she has to squelch the secret before public sympathy turns against the nurses.

Winnipeg Free Press columnist Catherine Mitchell (and the editor writing her headline) sent a chill down Hancharyk's back with this story Nurses' part-time ethic fuels full-time headache (Catherine Mitchell, February 29, 2008). Deep in the piece, Mitchell wrote, "More than half of Manitoba's nurses -- 52 per cent -- work part time..."

Hint: That's not the secret.

But in an op-ed column Hancharyk addressed the issue as if it was. "It's not easy being a full-time nurse" was the headline on her piece (Winnipeg Free Press, March 4). "To understand why nurses choose to work part-time, you have to understand the environment in which we work every day." she began, her main points being:

*40 percent of Manitoba nurses are too old (over 50) to handle the physical demands of the job. Some of them suffer back injuries lifting patients.
* One-third of nurses report being assaulted at work
* Almost half the nurses in the union are yelled at or insulted and it hurts their feelings.
* Two-thirds of new nurses show signs of burnout within their first two years.
* Most nurses are women. (Whooah. Say what?) They need to look after their children and homes as well as work. Even female doctors work less than their male counterparts.
* More than half the nurses come early, stay late and work over lunch.

That's pretty much it.

The MNU isn't too concerned that 52 percent of their 11,000 members work part-time, and you'll soon see why. Hancharyk would rather focus on the 800 nurse shortage in Manitoba and the alleged need to raise the pay of nurses to keep them from moving to other provinces which pay more.

To which we have to ask, what shortage?

Can you imagine a private business with 11,000 employees and more than half of them working part-time? The greenest manager would know how to fill 800 empty jobs, because the solution is obvious.

There's no nursing shortage in Manitoba. There's a management shortage.

The numbers say roughly 6700 nurses are working part-time. By our back-of-the-envelope calculations, if only 1600 of them got full time hours, the 800 nurse shortage would disappear and with it the huge overtime bill the province pays each year.

But there's the dirty little secret. Hundreds if not thousands of nurses DON'T WANT TO WORK FULL TIME. Why? Because they get FULL TIME PAY FOR PART-TIME WORK.

A nurse with five year's experience, like those over-50's Hancharyk talked about, is paid a tad over $31 an hour. That's almost $30,000 for six hours work three days a week. And many of the veteran nurses think that's just fine.

If they want a little more spending cash, they only have to take one of the constant overtime shifts available. They'll pick up more than $400 a day for a single day's work.

Last year (or the year before that-ed.) CJOB explored the reasons a provincial committee designed to reduce the number of part-time nurses failed. Richard Cloutier received call after call from nurses who confessed they were happy to work part-time all summer so they could spend their weekends at the cottages and beaches, all the while collecting an acceptable paycheque for the few days they did work.

The MNU will not force these nurses to take full-time shifts. The part-timers are a permanent dysfunction in the system.
The NDP, which owes the nurses union for their help at election time, will not force a change.
So, instead of nurses working for the public, we have a health care system designed to work for the nurses first.

The so-called nursing shortage is a permanent feature of the system. The MNU is a UNION, and unions depend on shortages of labour to drive up the cost of their service. Where's the bargaining power if there's no nursing shortage?

Union president would prefer you to look over here, over there, anywhere but at the real problem.

Nurses have grown too old to do the job? Buy a truckload of gold watches. For every two part-time nurses who retire give one new nurse a full-time job. Watch the retention rate grow and the burnout rate drop.

Nurses are being assaulted? Fire some managers who aren't addressing this serious problem. Nurses being insulted? You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Smedley. Patients are in pain, scared, dying in many cases and they're going to take their emotions out on the closest person around. It's part of the job.

Nurses being women? Eight hour shifts five days a week instead of 12 hour shifts plus OT will do more to bring families together than more money for 12 shifts plus OT.

52 percent of nurses come to work early and stay late and 59 percent work through their lunch breaks? Let's give 'em gold stars they can collect in their workbooks. When they have enough they get a MacDonald's coupon.

The regional health authority told Catherine Mitchell "some 22 per cent of Manitoba grads have left for work in other provinces." So to keep 22 of every 100 graduates we need to give 11,000 nurses a 29 percent raise? Uh, what's wrong with this reasoning? What happened to the Manitoba advantage-especially the cheap housing compared to B.C., Alberta, and Ontario? Isn't Spirited Energy enough to keep the grads here?

Or is the lure of full-time jobs (and a liveable climate) so great?

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