Nova Scotia health-care workers call new legislation a direct attack on unions

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K'JIPUKTUK, HALIFAX - Nova Scotia health-care workers are angry about new legislation that the liberal government introduced on the evening of September 29. 

Well over 600 health-care workers came to Province House to show just how angry they are. They called for Premier McNeil's resignation, and vowed to continue to fight what they consider this Liberal government's consistent anti-labour stance.

The proposed legislation merges the nine district health authorities in the province into two, and reduces the number of collective agreements with health-care units to just four, based on classification. 

So far so good, say the affected unions, but the how and what of the reorganization is a big issue.

Nurses, technologists, administrative professionals and support workers may well be forced to abandon their current union and join a new one. Which union that will be is to be determined through mediation or, failing that, to be decided by an arbitrator.

"Democracy is not a matter of convenience, democracy is democracy," Joan Jessome, President of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), told the crowd, arguing that the government's move constitutes a clear infringement of members rights to freedom of association.

Not only will the new legislation move workers from one union to another without their input, it will also force workers to accept collective agreements that may well be inferior to their current ones, the unions say.

Photo: Robert Devet

Many union members are devastated by the announced measures.

"This is one of the worst days of my life," Tracy Fisk, president of NSGEU Local 42, told the Halifax Media Co-op. "I have been a Licenced Practical Nurse for 24 years. We are family. We don't want to go anywhere, neither do CUPE members, neither do Unifor members or members of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union."

The four health-care unions had hoped that the government would accept their detailed proposal to keep current membership intact and allow unions to bargain collective agreements together.

A similar approach using bargaining associations is reportedly working well in British Columbia.

Failing that, they would have liked the ability to at least vote for the union they wish to represent them.

"The preferred option is the bargaining association, but I deserve at the very least to have the right to have a voice in who represents me," said Rebecca Norris, a 27-year Registered Nurse and president of NSGEU Local 97.

Norris believes that what motivates much of the government's approach is their desire to teach Joan Jessome, President of the NSGEU, a lesson. Jessome led the fight for increased staffing in hospitals in the spring.

"I take real offence to these personal attacks on Joan Jessome," said Norris. "Joan has supported us in what we wanted to do, and taken us where we wanted to go in our fight for safer patient care."

Vernon Martell is on the executive of Unifor Local 4603. Its members are based in Cape Breton, and work in acute and long-term care or in community homes.

"This is just another attempt for the government to divide and conquer unions, so they can destroy the entire working class," Martell believes. 

"Taking people from one union and putting them in another union serves absolutely no purpose other than to disrupt the focus of the unions in fighting the government. This is only serving to deter us and to keep us fighting amongst ourselves," Martell said.

Lana Payne, atlantic regional director for Unifor, directly addressed this notion.

"This has been an incredibly tough week on all of us," Payne told the rally. "Our resolve has been tested. Our solidarity is being tested right now, at this very moment. This bill pits worker against worker, and union against union."

"This government may try to legislate away our rights, our collective agreements, and impose collective agreements, wage freezes, privatization, contracting out," she said.

"But there is one thing they can't do. They can't legislate away our pride, they can't legislate away our courage, our passion and conviction to stand up for every working person in this province. They can't legislate away our solidarity."


Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert

This article and originally appeared on Halifax Media Co-op and is reprinted with permission.

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