POLITICS

Union frustration with Nova Scotia health labour law boils outside legislature

09/30/2014 07:22 EDT | Updated 11/30/2014 05:59 EST
HALIFAX - The frustration of some of Nova Scotia's unions spilled over Tuesday when protesters blocked traffic outside the provincial legislature as inside the government continued to quickly push through legislation that reorganizes the bargaining structure in the health-care system.

A black SUV carrying Premier Stephen McNeil was caught up in the protest, with several people sitting in front of the vehicle chanting "Shame" as police cleared the way.

One man who was part of the demonstration was wrestled to the ground by officers and handcuffed before he was put in the back of a police van. A 40-year-old man from Enfield was later released from custody and is due to appear in court at a later date to face a charge of assaulting a police officer.

The bill introduced by the province's Liberal government would merge bargaining units, cutting them to four from 50 by April 1.

Public sector unions say the bill violates labour rights, but McNeil argues the legislation would protect patients and workers while ensuring health care is sustainable.

"We've been given a mandate to run the finances of this province and to ensure that essential services are there," McNeil said inside the legislature. "That's exactly what we are going to do."

The government is fast-tracking the bill, which has passed second reading. By using its majority in the house, the government moved it to the committee stage Tuesday with the intent of getting to third and final reading sometime on Friday.

During question period, Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie asked why the government combined the labour provisions of the bill with those that would cut the number of health authorities to two from 10. The Tories would prefer two separate bills to avoid disruption in the health-care system, he said.

"They've picked one bill right now all at once with all the turmoil that entails," Baillie said.

About 500 union members protested outside the legislature on Monday when the bill was introduced but the demonstration on Tuesday was much smaller.

Health Minister Leo Glavine said the Health Authorities Act would require workers who do the same types of jobs to be represented by the same union.

A mediator would determine which unions represent the various groups of workers in the health-care system with input from the unions and the workers' employers.

The unions have said they want to form a bargaining association to avoid splintering their members in contract negotiations. Under their proposal, the association would negotiate collective agreements for different unions, without workers changing which unions they belong to.

Glavine had said there could be room to negotiate something similar to what the unions want during the mediation phase and four of the union leaders tried to get clarification from the minister.

They waited several hours inside the legislature after having asked for a meeting but none came.

In a letter from Glavine addressed to the unions, he turned down their invitation.

"I have previously outlined our reservations in regard to the bargaining association and those reservations are as relevant today as when I first expressed them," Glavine says in the letter. "I remain hopeful that the mediator will be successful in helping the parties to find creative solutions."

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said any possibility unions could keep their current membership intact would be a significant development.

She said as things stand, the unions could lose members as part of any arbitration process.

"We aren't there by ourselves, we're there with the employers and if they don't agree ... then they will get exactly what they want," Jessome said.

The government has said wages, benefits and pensions would not be affected by any of the changes in the legislation, but if mediated negotiations end up in arbitration, the arbitrator would decide union representation. The government wants uniformity in the representation of nurses, technologists, administrative and support workers.

The government said once the law passes, the mediation process would have 45 days to reach agreements. If the process ends up in arbitration, there would be an additional 45 days added to the process.

Under the law, there would be a freeze on negotiations, as well as a prohibition on strikes and lockouts, until April 1, the date that has also been set to merge the province's 10 health authorities into two operations.

The government has repeatedly butted heads with labour since sweeping to power nearly a year ago.

It was named in a court challenge two weeks ago that aims to overturn essential services legislation that ended a strike by 2,400 nurses in Halifax in April.