On this Labour Day, I’m reminded of the driving forces that coalesced workers into a strong labour movement. During the industrial revolution, workers banded together to demand safer and healthier working conditions. In mines and factories, they fought for the right to return home, safe and sound, at the end of the workday. They called for an end to exploitation – an end to untenable working hours. “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will” became a rallying cry for the movement. Later, the women of the labour movement, including nurses, fought the sexism that permeated their workplaces and often limited their careers. The principle of fairness – equal pay for equal work, workplaces free from discrimination – would become a foundational tenet of our movement.
In short: all workers deserve safety, dignity and respect.
The COVID-19 pandemic has once again put these values into sharp focus. Workplaces, faced with an airborne virus, have become the unwitting hosts to an invisible hazard. Workers, meanwhile, have had to fight for basic protections and paid sick leave. As we now know, even those who beat the virus face the possibility of debilitating long-term symptoms.
For almost two years now, unions have fought to protect their members, the broader working class and the general public from this unprecedented health hazard.
Likewise, in the early days of the pandemic, the CFNU demanded airborne protections for health care workers to properly protect against a virus we knew little about. The precautionary principle – the common-sense notion that it’s better to be safe than sorry – was at the centre of our effort to keep nurses safe.
Still today, we also continue to fight for presumptive legislation that would accept a nurse’s workplace exposure as the likeliest source of their infection. This is especially important for nurses grappling with long-haul symptoms.
But unhealthy working conditions aren’t limited to COVID-19 and other material hazards. Years of government neglect have led to an egregious nursing shortage. Already short-staffed, nurses have had to battle COVID-19 by working untenable and unhealthy amounts of hours. Burnout is now an epidemic in our profession. Mandatory overtime and back-to-back shifts are not just taking a toll on nurses, they are putting our patients at risk.
In Ontario, truck drivers are mandated to be off for 10 hours per 24-hour period because we recognize the inherent risks posed by sleep-deprived drivers. Likewise, Transport Canada limits flight attendants’ flight duty period to just 13 hours because we understand that flight attendants must be rested and alert to jump into action in an emergency.
Why is it still acceptable in our profession to work 16-hour – sometimes 24-hour – shifts? This has to stop.
Now more than ever, the nursing shortage demands government attention and intervention. Governments need to address the untenable working conditions in health care today and the psychological impacts this has had on the health care workers who shouldered that burden for far too long.
Canada’s health care system needs real action and attention; our nation’s health care workers, meanwhile, need rest and meaningful support. Rather than showering us with platitudes, governments need to focus on the concrete ways it can create safe and healthy workplaces and treat health care workers with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Nurses don’t want to be heroes; they’re not superhuman. As skilled professionals, they simply want to be empowered to provide the best care they can. And like all workers, they also want to come home, safe and sound, at the end of their workday.
Join us on September 17 and stand in solidarity with nurses demanding safer and healthier working conditions. For more information and to find an event near you, go to: www.frontlineunited.ca