POLITICS

Nova Scotia sends paramedic dispute to binding arbitration to avert strike

07/05/2013 04:05 EDT | Updated 09/03/2013 05:12 EDT
HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government stepped in Friday to avert a possible strike by the province's paramedics, a move that could have political implications for Darrell Dexter's New Democrats in the last year of their mandate.

Labour Minister Frank Corbett said the government introduced legislation Friday to send the matter to binding arbitration because it saw no prospect of a deal between the employer and the union that represents the 800 paramedics, who were in a legal strike position as of 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

"There was no compromise, that's why we're here today," Corbett told a news conference prior to tabling the legislation, which later passed.

"What I really have to think of here is the health and safety of Nova Scotians."

The legislature was recalled Friday in a rare summer session to debate the bill, which will see an arbitrator ask for a final offer from both parties, hear their arguments and select one of the offers. The union and the employer have 30 days to agree on an arbitrator, who then has 90 days to make a decision.

If both sides can't agree on an arbitrator, they will submit their preferences to Nova Scotia's chief justice, who will have 15 days to make a selection.

Union members repeatedly rejected offers from their employer, Emergency Medical Care, with 73 per cent of them recently voting against a deal that would have given them a defined benefit pension plan — one of their key demands.

Throughout the day, dozens of them sporting red T-shirts carried signs and yelled outside the legislature protesting the government's bill, accusing the NDP of stripping them of their collective bargaining rights.

"It doesn't sit well with us as a trade union that either government or any aspect of government would take it upon themselves (to) drastically interfere with the process," said Terry Chapman, the chief negotiator for Local 727 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

Jeff MacLeod, a political science professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, said the government could sustain some heavy political damage as a result of the way it handled the drawn-out dispute, particularly with an election looming.

"The NDP has already alienated significant labour voices within the province and they can ill afford to have any more groups disenchanted with their governance," he said.

"The fact that it got to this point and the legislature had to be reconvened, it's just crisis management and a government more attuned to what's going on and more prepared prevents these things from coming to the table. They seem tired and overwhelmed and are still feeling very new."

MacLeod said the NDP appeared ill-equipped, slow to respond and was ultimately outmanoeuvred by the union.

"The paramedics' union has done a masterful job of putting government in the position of really having to take dramatic action to meet their demands," he said.

But Larry Haiven, a management professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax and expert in collective bargaining, said the government was right to wait until the hours before the union was in a strike position because if it had stepped in earlier, their employer wouldn't have had a reason to continue bargaining.

"The government shouldn't want to step in too far in advance," Haiven said during a law amendments committee hearing on the legislation. "They wanted to leave it to the very last moment to see if the parties could reach an agreement."

Rick Clarke, the president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, said he believes in collective bargaining but understands the government's action to intervene.

"If there was a contingency plan in place... and this legislation was on the table, which I don't think it would be, we'd be down here in thousands. But we don't have that," Clarke said.

"It's a very tough issue. It's really a grey day."

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the move to send the dispute to binding arbitration was warranted.

"We have a bill that will keep the paramedics on the job and provides for a fair settlement process for them and we're here to support it," Baillie said. "No games."

But Liberal Opposition Leader Stephen McNeil opposed the legislation, agreeing with the paramedics that the measure takes away their right to strike.

"Let's be clear, it's an anti-strike bill," McNeil said inside the house of assembly, where the faint sound of cries and car horns from the rally outside could be heard.

"There has been no work stoppage. We're not forcing paramedics back to work. What we're doing is taking away the right to strike from paramedics."

Stacey Brown, a spokeswoman for Emergency Medical Care, said in an email that the company would respect the arbitration process.

In addition to the defined benefit pension plan, the paramedics said they were seeking better wages — a 15 per cent pay hike over three years rather than the 11.1 per cent over almost five years that was offered in the latest tentative agreement.

The contract expired in March 2011. Both sides have been negotiating since September 2011 and a tentative settlement was reached in January with the help of a conciliator, but the paramedics rejected it. Subsequent tentative deals reached in April and June were also rejected.

— With files from Alison Auld