Quebec nurses launch illegal strike

Quebec nurses are taking part in a 24-hour illegal strike Tuesday. It's the latest in a series of similar disputes across the country, all of them about nurses' pay and workload.

So far this year, nurses in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Newfoundland have staged or threatened protests for more pay and better working conditions.

Thirty minutes before the walkout, Quebec's Essential Services Council ruled the job action illegal. The nurses could face fines and a loss of a year's seniority for every day they're on strike.

The union, which represents more than 47,000 nurses, vows to maintain essential services during the 24-hour strike. Another walkout is set for Thursday.

The provincial hospital association says it's too soon to assess the inconveniences caused by the walkout. Some elective surgery has been cancelled.

Talks between the province and the Quebec Nurses Federation broke down on the weekend.

The Quebec nurses are angry for the same reasons nurses across the country are angry: they're overworked and underpaid. For the Quebec nurses, money is the biggest issue. No Canadian nurse earns less than a new nurse in Quebec. Even those with the most experience earn an average of $35,000 a year.

The nurses want more staff, more stable funding and less overtime. In wages, they're seeking a catch-up raise of 10 per cent, plus a hike of 15 per cent over three years. Management has offered five per cent over three years.

Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard said the illegal walkout will hurt the nurses' cause. He says nurses are asking for too much money from the public purse. But that doesn't seem to be the way the public feels. Most Quebecers agree the nurses are underpaid.

In Alberta, meanwhile, talks aimed at avoiding an illegal, province-wide nurses strike have been put on hold until Wednesday, when a mediator is to issue his report on the dispute.

Talks were held on the weekend, but union president Heather Smith called the session "an absolute failure."

A tentative two-year contract was reached Friday, but it was put in jeopardy after the two sides hit an impasse over working conditions for 500 long-term care nurses. Smith says all nurses must get the same deal -- or there will be no deal.

In Ontario, after campaigning against his recent re-election, nurses have decided to help Premier Mike Harris make good his promise to fill 12,000 nursing jobs in the next three years.

The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario is setting up a job hotline and taking other measures to help fill the vacancies.

However, the association's Doris Greenspun says the government still has some work to do to improve working conditions for nurses.