VICTORIA - B.C. Premier Christy Clark says the government is in the early stages of talks about a 10-year contract with the nurses' union to ensure long-term labour peace for patients.
"We've talked about a 10-year deal with the (B.C. Teachers' Federation) and began our work with them and we want to get this work going with the nurses as well, if we can," Clark said Tuesday.
"Labour peace in hospitals is just about as good as labour peace in schools," she said, adding the best investment the government could make is a long-term agreement with teachers.
Neither the teachers' union nor the B.C. Nurses Union has expressed any interest in a 10-year deal contract.
Last week, presidents of the province's six health authorities sent a letter to the Health Employers Association of B.C., which was involved in the talks with the nurses' union, saying they hadn't been informed of any such discussions.
"A long-term agreement with the BCNU does not necessarily protect the operation of the system as other unions under shorter agreements could disrupt operations," the letter said.
Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said any deal with nurses would have to be ratified by the health authorities, which have now been contacted about the very informal discussions so far.
"Since that letter went out there have been discussions with both the CEOs and the board chairs and I think everyone is feeling much less concerned because they understand these are preliminary, informal discussions," she said.
"To be clear, there's no possibility of an agreement without them. They have to support and ratify any agreement so there's a dual ratification for every labour agreement where the employers and the members of the union have to ratify on both sides."
The nurses' current two-year contract will expire in March 2014, although the union wanted a four-year deal.
The B.C. Teachers Federation has said it won't go for a 10-year agreement after years of acrimony with the government, including labour woes that lasted the entire school year starting in September 2011.
The teachers' current contract will expire at the end of June.
The health authorities also said in last week's letter that they're concerned about the integration of licensed practical nurses into the nurses' bargaining unit.
"We are alarmed that such a new agreement may include a provision under which the BCNU would receive the sole benefit of any efficiencies which might arise from the integration of licensed practical nurses into the BCNU bargaining unit," said the letter.
MacDiarmid said nurses have asked for legislation that would reclassify licensed practical nurses so all nurses are in one association for bargaining purposes.
Licensed practical nurses are currently part of a bargaining association with other hospital support staff including care aides, whose standards are not upheld by a college under the Health Professions Act.
"I understand why they want it," MacDiarmid said of a change in legislation, adding that issue may also have been discussed during informal talks.
"It's something that we could consider so we need to look at it in the context of what is going to be best for the health-care system, what's going to be best for patients."