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Debbie Forward said rank-and-file members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses' Union are firmly behind a campaign to lobby for higher salaries. ((CBC))

A dispute between Newfoundland and Labrador's nurses and the provincial government heated up Friday as the nurses union said it would be taking a strike vote within the next few weeks, and the province's finance minister accused the union's president of blackmail.

Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses' Union president Debbie Forward told a news conference Friday morning that nurses will hold a strike vote as soon as essential services agreements are reached with the health authorities who employ them.

Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy said Friday afternoon that the government would not be blackmailed and he would use the legislature to end a strike.

"If forced to — and we don't [want] to get to this stage — if forced to, we will legislate the nurses back."

Asked if the government would impose a settlement or go to binding arbitration, Kennedy said, "We will impose a settlement."

"I just feel bad for the nurses out there who as a result of the union's stance risk losing that 20 per cent. That's really going to be unfortunate and I just would urge Miss Forward to come in and talk," he added.

At the heart of the dispute is a refusal to accept a government wage template with raises worth more than 20 per cent over four years, which most other public-sector unions have now accepted.

The union wouldn't comment on Kennedy's remarks, but Forward said during her news conference that the dispute isn't just about money, as there are two government demands in the template that the union won't accept.

The first would allow the government to fire any nurse who is on workers compensation for a long period of time and is unable to return to work. The second is the government's demand that it be allowed to pay higher wages and benefits to recruit new nurses, while not giving the same compensation to nurses already in the system.

"Right now, government's position is eight, four, four and four [per cent], four years, these two issues and nothing else — and that isn't enough for nurses," she said.

The union was planning to hold the strike vote this month, but said it would be delayed a few weeks because essential worker agreements must be in place before any vote is held.

Seeking 12% per year over 2 years

Forward said the fact that the union is pushing back a strike vote is not a sign of a weakening resolve among the membership.

"We have done consistent polling of our members and research to determine whether they would accept government's template offer, [which] appears to be government's bottom line," Forward said.

"Consistently, over time, nurses have said, 'No, this isn't acceptable to us,' " she said.

"We wouldn't be moving in this direction if nurses were telling us to move in a different direction."

The nurses union launched a campaign against the government last fall, with members refusing to do what the union calls "non-nursing duties," including booking appointments, running routine lab samples and housekeeping.

The nurses union's opening bargaining position included a request for pay increases worth 12 per cent per year over two years, as well as hikes to starting and top salary scales.

The nurses union developed its bargaining strategy while oil prices were still soaring, leading to unprecedented windfalls for the Newfoundland and Labrador treasury. But even before oil prices plummeted, Premier Danny Williams described the nurses' demands as unrealistically high and far too rich for what the government could afford.

Forward said nurses recognize the worsening economic crisis, but said that members are also concerned about the future of the health-care system.