Thunder Bay

Public health nurses on strike at Thunder Bay District Health Unit

Nearly 60 public health nurses at the Thunder Bay District Health Unit hit the picket line Tuesday morning after talks between the health unit and the union representing the nurses on Monday failed to produce a new collective agreement.

58 nurses began strike action Tuesday after mediation talks failed

58 public health nurses with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit walked off the job Oct. 16, one day after scheduled mediated talks failed to produce a new deal. The nurses say they've been without a contract for two years. (Heather Kitching / CBC)

Nearly 60 public health nurses at the Thunder Bay District Health Unit hit the picket line Tuesday morning after talks between the health unit and the union representing the nurses on Monday failed to produce a new collective agreement.

In a media release, the health unit said the members, represented by the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) rejected the health unit's final contract offer during mediated talks.

"It's disappointing to be out here, I'm quite concerned about my clients, I think all of us are," said Shelley Aretz, a public health nurse, on the picket line Tuesday. "We didn't make this decision lightly, we didn't make this decision easily."

"We're a caring profession, I care very much about my clients and I would much rather be at work."

At issue during the negotiations were wages and staffing levels, according to the union, adding that its members had three days of negotiations, two days of conciliation and one day of mediation with the health unit before voting to reject the employer's final offer Monday night. 
The Thunder Bay District Health Unit says it is committed to working with the union "to reach a fair agreement as soon as possible." (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

Union officials have said the Thunder Bay health unit's public health nurses are the lowest paid in the province and have been working without a contract for close to two years.

"We have consistently been the lowest paid [public health nurses] in the province," Aretz said. "We're not asking to lead the pack, we just don't want to be at the bottom."

"We want to move towards being on-par with our colleagues doing the exact same work that we do."

Services cancelled, altered

The strike means some of the health unit's programs and services will be suspended or altered. Public health officials added that there may also be some delays in services provided.

The following list of the public health programs and services will be suspended until further notice:

  • Nurse practitioner clinics
  • Street nursing
  • Immunization and travel health clinics 
  • Flu clinics
  • Smoking cessation clinics
  • Breastfeeding clinics
  • Prenatal classes
  • Parenting sessions, workshops and events
  • Healthy Babies Healthy Children program
  • Some school health programming (includes classroom presentations and curriculum support) 
  • Workplace health program
  • Dental hygiene clinics for low-risk children
  • Branch office nursing services

A strike by public health nurses at the Thunder Bay District Health Unit means the suspension of many services. (Matt Prokopchuk/CBC)

Sexual health clinics will still be operating but at limited capacity, according to the health unit. The release said all health unit offices will be open, except for the Red Rock office, which will not be open until further notice.

In regard to negotiations the health unit stated that "the [health unit] is committed to continuing to working with ONA to reach a fair agreement as soon as possible."

The Ontario Nurses Association said public health nurses from the health unit were on picket lines as of 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.

"Unfortunately, a long day of mediation failed to result in a respectful, fair contract offer and our dedicated public health nurses have been forced to take strike action," association president Vicki McKenna said in a written release.

In an interview with CBC News Tuesday afternoon, McKenna added that she hopes the two sides can get back to the table soon, although no new bargaining dates had been scheduled. She said the union would be willing to go back to standard negotiations, but most likely, talks would require a mediator.

McKenna added that arbitration is not an option, given the section of Ontario's labour legislation that governs public health.