What does the Bill 1 decision mean for Nova Scotia health-care unions?

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Monday, arbitrator James Dorsey released his decision on Bill 1, the Nova Scotia Bill which will change the labour landscape for Nova Scotia health-care workers.

The explicit meaning of the 196-page decision wasn't immediately clear. However, in the hours after the announcement, all four health-care unions affected expressed their satisfaction with the ruling, which they say resembles the bargaining association model favoured by labour.

"I think this is a great day for workers in the province," said NSGEU President Joan Jessome, "We have 25,000 health-care workers that, with this process that Dorsey has put in this decision that he issued today, each one of them could maintain their position with their current union."

Dorsey's task was to determine what the structure of union representation would look like after Nova Scotia's 49 existing health care bargaining units were streamlined to create four province-wide units for nurses, health care, clerical and support workers respectively. Though the unions never disputed the necessity of this process, they did take issue with the way the Liberal government proposed achieving that goal.

The method the Nova Scotia government outlined in Bill 1 would have assigned one union to represent each unit, instituting a major reshuffling of union members, which some argued would have violated their members' Charter right to free association. 

Last winter, all four unions put forward a proposal to form a bargaining association -- a model that has been successfully employed in public sector mergers in both Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

The bargaining association approach would have allowed health-care workers to maintain membership in their chosen unions while reducing the number of negotiated contracts. Though Nova Scotia's Health Minister Leo Glavine rejected the bargaining association model as an unworkable solution, the unions say that Dorsey has now re-opened the possibility of multi-union representation.

"We are pleased that he is proposing this big compromise," said Unifor's Atlantic Regional Director Lana Payne, "I say 'big compromise' in that it is not run-off votes and it's not carving up members. It is, rather, a task that he has given the unions -- to come forward with the creation of a collaborative bargaining structure that would allow for the existing health-care unions to create province-wide bargaining agents."

In his ruling, Dorsey makes clear that solutions are limited, due to the language of the Trade Union Act and the highly circumscribed language of Bill 1.

Yet he also acknowledges that the government does not have the authority to rearrange union membership to the extent that Bill 1 proposes, writing: "While the government has the right to wind up district health authorities and dismiss executives and managers in restructuring, it cannot reach across the table and assign new representational rights and responsibilities for independent trade unions or tell employees who will be their bargaining agent."

Dorsey's ruling states that in order for one union to be the sole representative for a bargaining unit, it has to have what's being called a "double majority" -- that is, a majority in both the regional health authorities and IWK Health Centre, which is a separate entity jointly administered by the three Maritime provinces.

Dorsey suggests that in lieu of a winner-take-all approach, the unions "could take steps to establish a single successor union through merger, amalgamation or transfer of jurisdiction."

That is, they could establish a multi-union entity that would act as the sole representative agent during collective bargaining. Though it has yet to be determined exactly what this entity will look like, Jessome has described it as a "union of unions."

Jessome said that NSGEU is very much open to the idea.

"We have the majority in the clerical section but for us to say that we are going to use that majority to our advantage, that means we would end up with CUPE members and that's not our intention."

The NSGEU plans to use the upcoming arbitration period to negotiate with CUPE to form an amalgamated health care unit for the clerical workers, said Jessome, who believes that that option is still available for the nurses too.

"There isn't any hatchet to bury between the NSGEU and CUPE, Unifor or even the NSNU," said Jessome in a press statement on Monday. "If it means that we can continue to represent our members, we are going to go into those meetings on the second of February with the intention of working with the other unions."

In an interview broadcast on Halifax-based radio station News 95.7, President of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union (NSNU) Janet Hazelton said that she is also open to a multi-union approach.

"We'll be listening to government's response and also working with Dorsey and the other health-care unions to see if there is some type of solution like we had earlier," said Hazleton, "Like with the bargaining association model that we had in the summer, everyone got to keep their members. We're still interested in discussing that if that can be succeeded."

The Dorsey ruling raises questions about some of the terms used in Bill 1, and says the employer will need to clarify.

On February 2, arbitration will resume to hammer out these and other fine details of the arrangement left open by Dorsey's initial ruling.

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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