If  you think nurses’ unions only look after nurses, you’d be wrong. A strong union can also protect patients who can be at risk if nurse staffing levels are too low. That’s especially important these days when Canada’s population is aging and nurses are caring for highly complex patients. 

Nurses are the largest group of health care providers in Canada. They work in schools, community health clinics, hospitals, and senior residences. Nurses deliver babies, educate the public on better health outcomes, and care for our loved ones when they need it most.  

By participating in nurses’ unions, they also act as patient advocates, letting governments know what is best for patients and the public health care system. “When the quality of care slips — nurses know about it first and start sounding alarms,” says Maura MacPhee, Associate Director of the UBC School of Nursing Undergraduate Program. 

Collective bargaining helps patients

A union’s main goal is negotiating a strong employment contract that gives fair compensation, reasonable working hours, health and safety protections, and job security for its members. And, collective bargaining helps build a fairer society for all Canadians.  

“The majority of nurses in Canada are represented by unions, and as a collective voice for nurses they play a crucial role in advocating for safe, quality patient care”

But nurses’ unions can also use the bargaining process to improve public health care. For example, the BC Nurses’ Union’s (BCNU) 2012 contract gave nurses new authority to meet patient care needs through safe staffing. 

“Before 2012 nurses had little say about staffing levels,” says BCNU president Gayle Duteil. “Now, if there isn’t enough staff to meet patient needs our contract allows us to go before an arbitrator who can make a binding order on the employer to bring in more nurses.” 

“Putting patients’ rights to safe health care into nurses’ employment contract makes it enforceable,” notes MacPhee. Better care happens when nurses report potential or actual safety issues and work with management to resolve problems, she says. “The health system needs to be financially wise, but it can’t pinch pennies to the point where patients aren’t getting the health services they need.”

Duteil says, “When patients get safe, effective healthcare at the appropriate time we actually save money because taxpayers aren’t spending money to fix health complications from delayed treatments.”  

Nurses’ unions are strong advocates for matching the number of nurses to patient care needs because it helps decrease high rates of burnout and occupational injuries. And having enough nurses improves patient health outcomes.   

“The majority of nurses in Canada are represented by unions, and as a collective voice for nurses they play a crucial role in advocating for safe, quality patient care,” says MacPhee.