Nurses Anne-Marie Spencer and Tony Moores celebrate news of a tentative four-year deal that involves higher wages and benefits. ((CBC))

About two hours before its members were poised to hoist picket lines outside hospitals and nursing homes, the Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses' Union has reached a tentative deal with the government.

The union, which represents more than 5,000 members, was preparing for what it called a lockout, as months of bitter feuding between the two sides came to a head.


Nurses' Union president Debbie Forward said both sides compromised to reach a deal that will dramatically improve salaries. ((CBC))

Union president Debbie Forward said both sides compromised to reach a four-year agreement, which she said is based on the final offer that government presented several weeks ago.

Forward wore the same clothes to an early-morning news conference that she sported on Tuesday, when she said government officials were willing to hurt patients in order to punish nurses. However, Forward adopted a far more conciliatory tone on Wednesday.

"Both sides saw that if there was a way to avoid [compromising patient care], then we both had an obligation to avoid that," she said.

"That's what happened last night. It was the crunch time, and in a crunch time we were able to achieve something that both sides are satisfied with and we can recommend."

The government's final offer included wage hikes worth 21.5 per cent over four years, plus hikes to both starting and top salary scales.

The nurses have won a concession from the government on what is called market adjustment, one of the two issues that remained unresolved for months. Instead of being able to hire a nurse at a higher wage than colleagues doing the same work in hard-to-fill jobs, the government will instead be able to pay bonuses.

On the other hand, the union has agreed to a second clause that the government has been seeking. In that clause, an injured nurse can lose his or her job two years after being deemed permanently disabled.

"That compromise [of accepting the injured worker clause] was made in exchange for the new market adjustment language," Forward told reporters.

Nurses 'ecstatic' over pending agreement

At St. John's hospitals, nurses and others appeared relieved, while organizers scrambled to prevent picket lines from forming.

"No strike, we got a deal, we're doing our happy dance," said nurse Anne-Marie Spencer, who works at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John's.

"I would think [nurses are] very, very happy," she said, adding that her immediate priority was to ensure that ordinary shifts continued. "We'll celebrate after we get our work done."

"It's just really, really stressful," said Tony Moores, another nurse at the HSC, where about 1,200 nurses are employed, describing the anxiety of the last few days.

"When I got the call this morning ... to let us know the deal was done, I was pretty ecstatic," he said.

Yvette Hynes, a nurse who represents many colleagues at the HSC as branch president, said she believed the conflict was resolved when government negotiators understood what might happen if nurses were off the job.

"We knew the system couldn't sustain it. The system is in shambles on a daily basis trying to find staff because of our nursing shortage," Hynes told CBC News.

In a statement, Premier Danny Williams said the details of the tentative agreement will be put to nurses directly, but the pact involved some give and take.

"We are pleased that after working through the night, we have been able to avert a strike with a tentative agreement that maintains our core principles as an employer," Williams said.

Government is satisfied, Williams says

Louise Jones, acting president of Eastern Health, said she learned about the tentative deal from the Newfoundland and Labrador Health Boards Association at 5:28 a.m. NT. She had no details about the tentative deal, but said she welcomed it.

She said the authority, which had been cancelling surgeries and other procedures, will now work on resuming normal services.

"With our full staff today, we will be preparing to have our operating rooms and all that at full capacity tomorrow [Thursday]," she told CBC News. As for patients who had already been contacted with cancellations, "we will be attempting to recall [them] and rebook into future dates," she said.

Minnie Wasmeier, chief operating officer at the Western Health authority, said she didn't sleep well the night before thing about the people who wouldn't be getting services.

"This just makes me so happy," she said.

Wasmeier said doctors would most likely dealing with emergencies only on Wednesday. Staff will rebook operations that were cancelled and prepare clinics to re-open.

CEO Boyd Rowe says Labrador Health will also need a day or two to get back to normal.

"So, we'll be contacting patients over the [course] of today. For those clinics that have been cancelled over the past couple of days, we'll be opening those clinics and accepting appointments and getting things back to full capacity."

The dispute, which has for months focused on contract provisions that the government insisted nurses must accept to receive substantial wage increases, would have meant disruptions for thousands of patients, and the continuation of only the most pressing services.

The two sides had been so far apart that they could not even agree on what to call the dispute.

While the union believed it had been locked out, both Premier Danny Williams and Health Minister Ross Wiseman maintained the nurses were poised to wage a conventional strike.

Williams said that government is satisfied with how contentious issues were resolved.

"The negotiated agreement includes language [on injured workers] as previously put forward by the employer. As well, under language negotiated on issues related to market modifier, the employer maintains the right to offer bonuses in order to address recruitment in hard-to-fill areas," the statement said.