Health care unions fight to preserve worker rights despite Nova Scotia's Bill 1

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Photo: Shelley Burgoyne, Unifor

Protests by health care workers greeted the passage of Bill 1 in Nova Scotia on October 3. The Bill makes sweeping changes to the regulations governing health care sector unions in the province.

Now, unions representing health care workers in the province have agreed to approve James Dorsey as the mediator to help resolve the difficulties resulting from the implementation of Bill 1.

The Liberal's Bill 1 proposes the following, in the name of cost-effectiveness:

  • Merging the nine existing health authorities into two, and
  • Reducing the number of bargaining units in acute care from 49 contracts to four contracts. That's one province-wide contract for each of the following job categories: nurses, technologists, administrative professionals, and support workers.
  • Assigning each of the four major public sector healthcare unions to represent one of the four bargaining units. 
  • Giving the provincial government, rather than workers, the authority to determine which union will represent which bargaining unit.

It is a worker's right to choose who represents them at the bargaining table. Bill 1 would set a precedent for circumventing that democratic process.

Though the four major healthcare unions have agreed to the restructuring, they unanimously reject the process by which the Liberals seek to implement their plan, calling it undemocratic and excessive. 

"We are not disputing the restructuring," says Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) president Joan Jessome, "but in this legislation it's the employer that says who represents them? That’s not done!"

Unifor Atlantic Regional Director Lana Payne emphasized that Bill 1 is part of a larger trend.

"We are seeing major restructuring across the country. With a blink of an eye they trample on workers rights."

Though the attack on public sector workers began more than a decade ago, Payne suggested that we are starting to see "a different kind of fight-back."

Liberals reject Bargaining Associations

In February 2014, all four unions put forth a proposal to form a bargaining association, which would have allowed healthcare workers to maintain membership in their chosen unions while reducing the number of negotiated contracts.

Though the bargaining association model has been successfully employed for public sector mergers in both Saskatchewan and British Columbia, Nova Scotia's Health Minister rejected the proposal in a letter to the unions, arguing that the proposal "has not adequately addressed valid and significant concerns articulated by the employer."

According to NSGEU president Joan Jessome, the Liberal's change of heart came as a shock. "We were led to believe by government that they were onside too," said Jessome, "we had no reason up until the first of August to think that we were going down the wrong road. Then it was just one calamity after another."

Solidarity under pressure

Though all four unions maintain that bargaining associations are the best way through this conflict, tensions were sparked last week when NSGEU president Joan Jessome momentarily broke with the other unions, conceding that if the Liberals would not agree to forming bargaining associations, then the NSGEU would fight for run-off votes to determine who represents which health care workers. 

Jessome maintains that "the best opportunity the workers have to a fair process that protects their democratic right is the association model that we put forward. In the event that that’s not possible, then we will be pushing for the workers to have the right to choose. They have to have one of those rights."

The union camp was momentarily divided, as the other unions maintained their position, arguing that run-off votes would play into the Liberal’s hands by pitting union against union in competition for votes.

"This has certainly been an attempt by government to divide the labour movement and we have worked very hard to maintain the solidarity between unions," says Kyle Buott, President of the Halifax- Dartmouth & District Labour Council. 

Since the Bill was passed last week, solidarity has been restored between the unions as they move to gain a more equitable resolution than the one proposed in Bill 1.

Buott also notes that "this legislation is really designed to break the bargaining power of the NSGEU specifically," which currently represents more than half of the 23,000 workers affected by the Bill, and stands to lose 9,000 of those members.
 
Last spring, the NSGEU faced-off with McNeil's Liberal government on two separate occasions. In a dispute with Capital Region nurses, a bargaining stalemate over safe staffing levels resulted in major workplace actions, when the Liberals implemented an essential services law, Bill 37, which took away the nurses' right to strike. NSGEU Home Care workers were also legislated back to work last March, after the Liberals passed Bill 30, which was opposed by both the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives in the province.

Mediation begins

The chosen mediator, James Dorsey, was recommended by all four health care unions.

With 37 years of experience in arbitration and mediation, Dorsey was appointed to handle the health authorities' merger in British Columbia in 2001, which resulted in the formation of a bargaining association like the one proposed by the Nova Scotia unions.

Though the Health Authorities accepted the unions' recommendation of Dorsey, that decision needs to be analyzed, says Jessome. 

"The hopeful side is that maybe the government agreed to have him as mediator because they've had a change of heart. Or maybe they are so confident in the restrictiveness of their legislation that it wouldn’t have mattered who we asked for."

Payne says that although the unions are pleased with the choice of mediator, it does not change their position on the legislation itself. Both Payne and Jessome have suggested that if the Liberals attempt to implement the Bill as is, they will raise a legal challenge to its constitutionality.

But the real fight will be in the court of public opinion, says Payne.

"We've made it clear that our members will be out, having conversations with their neighbors and MLAs. Its not over just because Bill 1 has passed. In some ways, the hard work starts now," she said.

Initial meetings between Dorsey, the unions, and the employer, are set to begin on October 17. According to the Bill, the parties will then have 45 days to reach a resolution. If the process fails, then the case moves to arbitration and will be given another 45 days. All collective bargain contracts are frozen and unions involved in the process are prohibited from striking until April 1, 2015.

 

Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People. She now lives in Toronto where she enjoys chasing the labour beat, biking and birding.

Photo: Shelley Burgoyne, Unifor

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