The right to strike and the provision of emergency services in Canadian health care

December 10, 2002

Should health care professionals and support staff have the right to strike? Why have more than 200,000 of them walked off the job for varying periods since 1999--whether they had the legal right to do so or not?

These questions--and other issues involving labour conflict in Canada's health care system--are addressed in a new detailed study by Judy and Larry Haiven being released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Larry and Judy Haiven are professors in the Faculty of Commerce at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. The study flows from their observations of health care industrial relations over the past 25 years. After examining some of the major strikes by nurses, doctors, and other hospital workers, they describe these disputes as "symptoms of a crisis in health care employment."

The authors conclude that it doesn't matter what form of law a government decides to apply to labour relations in the health care field. "Strikes and lockouts will happen, anyway. Even outlawing strikes, or imposing heavy fines, does not prevent them from happening. Conflict can't be eliminated by a legislative snap of the fingers."

The study observes that striking health care workers always arrange to provide emergency services during work stoppages. The authors conclude that voluntarism, rather than coercion, is the way to handle the issue.

Expressing alarm at a recent tendency by some governments to impose "settlements-by-edict"--to outlaw health care strikes and unilaterally impose contract terms--the Haivens warn that such draconian methods will not "solve" labour problems that are rooted in the troubled health care system itself.

Many nurses, doctors, and other health care workers are unhappy with underfunding, understaffing, and overwork, and see themselves as fighting to save Medicare from uncaring governments and managers.

"Governments that declare war on health care workers," the authors warn, "risk being seen as declaring war on health care itself."