RNs: Professional workers united in action
One of the most tangible gains made by Ontario registered nurses through their unification under the banner of the province-wide union, ONA, is the achievement of remuneration that better reflects the value of their contribution to health care in the province. In most societies, nurses have been and continue to be undervalued because the nature of their work – caring – has been associated with unpaid caring work, which tends to be taken for granted. Prior to the 1973 formation of ONA, registered nurses (RNs) were organized in independent, workplace-based unions. Through ONA, these independent unions were able to work together to win the right to bargain with employers around wages, benefits and working conditions as province-wide groups of professional workers in two sectors: nursing homes and hospitals.
In greater detail, by 1976 and 1980 respectively, ONA had managed to push nursing homes and hospitals (i.e. the Ontario Hospital Association) to come to the bargaining table as two employer groups to negotiate with ONA. Already by 1974, thanks to the power of uniting, ONA was able to negotiate significant wage gains for RNs – an increase of over 50 per cent in 1973-74 – representing the first-time elimination of a portion of the wage discrimination faced by predominantly female workers performing essential caring work.
In the early 1990s, though wage increases were frozen by the Social Contract (1993-96), another significant wage gain was made – more than 28 per cent over two years – through pay equity claims ONA pursued through the legal system. These pay equity claims were aimed at undoing ongoing gender-based wage discrimination faced by RNs in Ontario.
Following the Social Contract, RNs made wage and benefit gains equivalent to just above inflation thanks to collective bargaining via ONA. This is the major benefit of the right to unionize and bargain collectively – a right which ONA believes should be legislated for all workers in all sectors. All workers should be recognized for the importance of their work and contributions to society through salary increases, just as corporations are recognized for their contributions through the making of profits.
From 2011, reflecting the political climate of government funding cuts to public services and public sector workers, including nurses, wage gains through ONA collective bargaining have been limited to lump sum increases (i.e. which cannot be built upon in subsequent years), and a 2.75 per cent wage increase in 2013. Still, without ONA, RNs would face wage cuts, as proposed by employers but successfully rejected by ONA in 1997. At that time, hospital employers proposed wage cuts to the tune of 24 per cent, along with cuts to benefits.
In large part due to the improved wages, benefits and workplace rights which come with joining ONA, ONA membership has grown more than six-fold since its birth in 1973. Following large increases in membership through the 1970s and ’80s, ONA saw significant drops in the 1990s with the Ontario Progressive Conservative government cutbacks to public health care and nursing positions.
Since the early 2000s, ONA membership has been back on the rise, with ONA reaching out to RNs, other health professionals, and from 2010, thousands of Ontario nursing students. Between 2011 and 2013, due to its commitment to making life better for professional health workers, some 5,000 new RNs and other health professionals chose to join ONA – a growth in union membership unmatched elsewhere in Ontario in this period.