The union representing British Columbia's 30,000 nurses is throwing a spotlight on what it argues is declining patient care as it appeals for public support to hire thousands of additional workers in the latest round of contract negotiations.

Rather than pushing for any wage hikes, the union is demanding 2,000 additional nurses. It says it's up to their employer to come up with the money to pay for them.

Union president Debra McPherson outlined the nurses' position Monday at the union's annual convention in Vancouver, where she unveiled a television, radio and newspaper ad campaign that begins this week.

McPherson was lauded with a standing ovation after describing staff shortages, growing workloads and what she described as the stress nurses endure watching patients "slip through the cracks."

'We want those nurses. We have to have them to have safe patient care.' —Nurses' union head Debra McPherson

"It breaks my heart to hear nurses talk about their conditions of practice," McPherson told the convention.

"To hear them talk about contemplating suicide rather than coming to work. To hear them talk about being afraid that their clients will die or suffer as a result of their inability to deliver care."

The nurses' current two-year contract expires on March 31. The union and the nurses' employer have been at the table for 12 days since talks began in late January.

The negotiations come at the same time the B.C.'s 41,000 teachers have been battling with the province over their own expired contract, culminating last week in a three-day walkout. The teachers also argue their workplace conditions are deteriorating, but their demands have largely focused on a 15 per cent wage increase.

Both sets of negotiations are happening as the province seeks to rein in spending growth and ensure any new public-sector contracts don't cost the government additional money.

'Co-operative gains' bargaining model

For teachers, that has meant adhering to what the province has called its "net-zero" mandate, in which no new money can be added to existing contracts. That means any increases to wages or benefits must be offset by concessions elsewhere, and it's amounted to a wage freeze for most of the 130 public-sector unions it's been applied to.

Nurses, however, are bargaining under a new system called the "co-operative gains" model, which the province intends to impose on all public-sector contracts that end any time in 2012 and beyond.

The model allows for pay increases or other improvements to contracts, as long they are funded by savings elsewhere in a department's overall budget, such as through efficiencies or improved productivity.

The nurses union is already resisting that approach. McPherson said it will be impossible to hire more nurses without more money.

"What we're saying is, we're not sure where we're going to find those productivity gains," McPherson said in an interview. "And even if we can't, we want those nurses. We have to have them to have safe patient care."

McPherson said the number of nurses the union wants is based on appropriate patient-staff ratios, and said those jobs could be filled by three new graduating classes. It would take time to phase in the new workers, she said, which is why the union would prefer to sign a four-year contract.

The union's previous contract, signed in 2009, gave nurses wage increases of three per cent over each of the past two years.