Nfld. & Labrador

Nurses demanding too much, too soon: premier

Newfoundland and Labrador's nurses are asking for more than the provincial government can afford, even during an oil-fuelled boom, the premier says.

Newfoundland and Labrador's nurses are asking for more than the provincial government can afford, even during an oil-fuelled boom, the premier says.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses' Union said Tuesday it will seek conciliation to overcome a bargaining impasse that brought talks to a halt last Friday.

The nurses are asking for 24 per cent over two years, as well as lifts on the floor and ceiling of the pay scale in an effort to recruit and retain nurses.

But Premier Danny Williams said the contract that the nurses are seeking is simply too rich.

"The people of this province can't afford it," said Williams.

"In our estimates, the cumulative package — not only base salary but everything else they put on the table — over a two-year period would be anywhere from 40 to 50 per cent," Williams said.

The Nurses' Union has been campaigning for months for a new deal that will ease the strain in hospitals and other institutions.

Nurses' Union president Debbie Forward said the government's proposal — a four-year contract with a salary hike of 15 per cent — falls far short.

As well, she said, if the nurses want any other contract improvements in their agreement, the provincial government is demanding that the extra cost would be deducted from the pay increase.

"The wage offer doesn't put us near the national average," she said.

"Essentially it would be even less than 15 per cent, if we were to proceed, and it's just not going to keep nurses in this province."

Forward has also said her union's membership is determined not to accept a contract that will last four years

In 2006, nurses accepted a deal that included no wage increase for the first year of the contract and pay raises of three per cent for each of the second and third years. That deal was in line with what the government had negotiated with other unions

The government's financial circumstances, though, have changed dramatically in only a few years.

With oil prices soaring, and three offshore oil fields now in production, the province is awash in energy-based revenues.

Last fall, the province said it was expecting to finish the current fiscal year with a surplus of about $881 million. Oil prices have jumped even higher since then.

The nurses are far from the only bargaining group now at the table with the provincial government.

Opening rounds have started with the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, the largest public-sector union in the province, as well as the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

NAPE and CUPE waged a bitter one-month strike against Williams and his governing Progressive Conservatives in 2004. The dispute ended with civil servants being legislated back to work, with an enforced contract that included a wage freeze followed by minimal pay increases.

In late March, CUPE also asked for conciliation in its current bargaining round.