BY MICHEL PRAIRIE
MONTREAL - Two important strikes involving thousands of workers are currently occurring in Canada. Some 8,400 nurses, members of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, have become the rallying point of the labor resistance across Canada. And 9,500 telephone workers have walked out in Quebec and Ontario.
The nurses are defying back-to-work legislation and a court injunction against their strike for better wages and working conditions, which began April 8. On April 13 they were joined by another 600 hospital support workers, who also went on strike across Saskatchewan. The nurses say they are underpaid and understaffed, a result of the massive cuts in heath services practiced by all provincial governments across Canada over the last decade. They are also protesting the forced overtime imposed on them.
The day their strike began, the Saskatchewan legislature, headed by the New Democratic Party government of Roy Romanow, adopted special legislation ordering the nurses back to work. The antistrike law imposed a 6 percent wage increase over three years.
Nurses are demanding everyone doing the same job receive the same pay. A government-legislated union amalgamation merged 10 disparate contracts together. "It's not that we are asking for a huge increase," June Tarr told the Regina Leader-Post. "Many of us haven't had an increase since 1997 when our contract expired."
At a mass meeting held April 9, the nurses refused to comply with the government dictate. Then the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations, which bargains for hospital boards, got a court injunction during the weekend to force them back to work. Again, some 3,000 nurses raucously rallied in Regina April 12 and decided to stay out.
The union faces a Can$50,000 fine (Can$1=US$0.65) the first day its members refuse to work after the issuance of the injunction and $10,000 for every day after. According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, "donations are pouring in from unions across Canada in support of the strikers." And the French- language network of the Canadian Broadcast Corp. reported April 14 the labor movement in Saskatchewan was considering a series of one-day general strikes in solidarity with the nurses.
There have also been recent job actions by nurses in British Columbia and Newfoundland. In Newfoundland the liberal government was able to force striking nurses to go back to work with a special law. Nurses in Quebec voted in early April to give a strike mandate to their union in negotiating a new contract with the provincial government.
Meanwhile, the telephone technicians and operators organized by the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) went on strike April 9 against Bell Canada in Quebec and Ontario. The main stake in the conflict for the 7,200 technicians is a series of important concessions in benefits demanded by the employer, according to several strikers on the main picket line in front of Bell's head office in downtown Montreal. Their wages have been frozen since 1993.
The stakes for the 2,300 operators are more dramatic. Last January, in the middle of the negotiations for the new contract, Bell announced that it was "selling" the services provided by the operators to a new outfit that would be jointly owned by Bell and a U.S. company. Half the current operators would be laid off. The others would see their wages cut in half and many would have to move to other cities and towns for work.
This provoked a major outcry. The operators organized several protest actions. And most of the media denounced the company's move. In face of this reaction, Bell recently announced that it would keep 900 operators and offer an early retirement to 875 others. The remaining 500 would keep their current wage through the year 2000 and 50 percent of it until the end of 2001 at the new outfit. The union is demanding an improved package.
When the Bell workers last went on strike, for four months in 1988, there were about 50,000 technicians and operators in the union. The number has dropped to less than 10,000 as a result of schemes like the one now planned for the operators.
Bell is clearly in for a tough fight. Hundreds of managers and clerks organized in a different union are escorted in and out of its main office in Montreal by the antiriot police squad - though not without noisy protests by the dozens of strikers picketing the building. Managers are also on the road providing what the company calls "emergency service."
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