Tensions run high as Nova Scotia's Bill 1 arbitration hearings come to a close

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Photo: flickr/ Phalinn Ooi

After a week of presentations, arbitration hearings over Nova Scotia's controversial health-care Bill, Bill 1, will come to a close tomorrow.

The Bill proposes to merge the number of bargaining units in acute care from 49 contracts to four contracts and re-assign union members to unions not necessarily of their choosing.

The four major health care unions - Unifor, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union (NSNU) - would each be assigned to represent one of the units.

On the first 2 days of the hearing, arbitrator James Dorsey heard from 3 of the 4 unions who say that the newly institute Health Authorities Act violates the Charter rights of their members.

“We are all challenging Bill 1 with respect its infringement on Freedom of Association, Section 2D of the Charter. But our remedies are different," explained Unifor Maritime Director Lana Payne.

During hearings, both Unifor and CUPE have maintained that the arbitrator can and should reconsider the bargaining association model that was first proposed by the unions in February 2014.

"Essentially what our argument is, is that we are proposing a bargaining association model, call it by any name, and that would be the best way to offer stability in the system," said CUPE NS president Danny Cavanagh.

Under this model, health-care workers would maintain membership in their chosen unions. Through the implementation of multi-union bargaining councils, each union would continue to represent its own members and, in council with the other unions, bargain the four collective agreements the government demanded.

“We have called upon the arbitrator to find a balance between the goals of the legislation with the rights of our members,” said Unifor’s Payne.

“It really is going to be a lot of chaos and upheaval, and our point is that it is unnecessarily so, there is a way to achieve the key goals of the government without throwing things into chaos," said Unifor’s Payne. “Both run-off votes and restructuring would create flux and upheaval in our healthcare workplaces in a time when there already is a lot of change occurring as a result of the restructuring itself.”

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 before the Bill was enacted, and continues to argue that the bargaining unit shuffle is essential to acute care restructuring.

The NSGEU currently represents more than half of the 23,000 workers affected by the Bill, and stands to lose 9,000 of those members. NSGEU president Joan Jessome agrees that the Bill is unconstitutional, but says that her union does not think that the bargaining association model is still on the table.

"[The arbitrator] did have that flexibility in the mediation process and that failed," said Jessome,

"We stand alone on this position, that the charter has been violated and that [the arbitrator] should order a vote." said Jessome.

"If the governments position is one union per bargaining unit, if that has to happen, then the only choice the arbitrator has is to order a vote," said Jessome "we also say that it's not just workers getting a vote, the employer and the government don't have a right to say that each union can only have one unit."

The Nova Scotia Nurses Union (NSNU), while maintaining that the bargaining association model is the best option, has said during arbitration that the Bill clearly rules this out as a possibility. NSNU is not calling for a run-off vote.

"There are some different arguments about some different things, but at the end of the day, most of the unions agree that if the arbitrator was to say there's going to be a bargaining association, then they would go along with that," says Cavanagh.

The unions say that Dorsey could choose to suspend arbitration and go back into mediation, if he felt that it was necessary and possible to reconsider the bargaining association model. This would push the arbitrator’s decision deadline back from its current date, January 1, 2015.

Both Payne and Cavanagh thought that Dorsey seemed receptive to their arguments, despite the office of the attorney general’s dismissal of their constitutional argument.

"It just seems that this is being done in such a hurry, even Mr. Dorsey pointed that out,” said Payne.

On the third and fourth days of the arbitration hearing, the parties discussed issues concerning seniority, collective bargaining, and how the restructured units would be classified,.

Since the Bill suspends collective bargaining until April 1, 2015, the arbitrator will need to determine which collective bargaining contracts apply and how to the newly restructured units.

Hearings end tomorrow, Dorsey has until January 1st to make his decisions.

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.



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