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The Ontario Nursing Association wants a 50 percent pay raise for its members over the next two years, or hospitals could face work slowdowns and rotating strikes by spring.

The association, which represents 55,000 of the province's 60,000 hospital nurses, says the raise would take a nurse's maximum from $40,203 to $60,000 a year at the end of the contract.

Nurses have been bearing the brunt of the additional workload as hospitals try to cope with shrinking budgets. While all other employees have specified work areas, nurses say their role constantly is expanded to include secretarial work, bed-making, floor-mopping and other menial tasks.

When the contract expires March 31, union officials say they are prepared to take a hard line in bargaining sessions with the Ontario Hospital Association. The nurses union wants to bring its members' pay up to the level of non-unionized nurses at the Hospital for Sick Children.

This year, the children's hospital agreed to boost top nurses' salaries to $56,000 through a package of bonuses and wage hikes.

The Ontario Nursing Association represents nurses at 188 of the province's 224 hospitals. Nurses at the other hospitals are non-unionized or members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which had been bargaining for a 16.9 percent pay raise but reportedly is ready to settle for a 7 percent boost.

Gordon Cunningham, president of the hospital association, said raising nurses' salaries by any more than 8 percent would take money from care programs. An 8 percent pay raise, he said, would cost the hospitals $234 million, and each percentage point above that would add another $29.25 million.

Ontario Premier Bob Rae, who has promised to improve nurses' pay levels and influence on hospital administration committees, agreed a pay raise for nurses is long overdue but added the province can't afford the 50 percent boost.

Nurses are banned from striking, but the union warns it will take whatever action is needed to get its message across.

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