06/05/2013 10:40 EDT | Updated 08/05/2013 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia appoints mediator in effort to prevent possible strike by paramedics

HALIFAX - A mediator has been appointed to prevent a strike by 800 paramedics in Nova Scotia, which could come as early as this weekend.

Labour Minister Frank Corbett said Wednesday he has named John Clarke to help with negotiations between the unionized paramedics and their employer, Emergency Medical Care Inc.

Clarke is a veteran arbitrator and lawyer from St. John's, N.L., who has mediated numerous labour disputes.

The paramedics, represented by the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 727, will be in a legal strike position Saturday. They have been without a contract since 2011.

Terry Chapman, the union's business manager, said Wednesday the union expects to meet with the employer and the mediator before the end of the week, but the company has yet to make contact.

"Unless the employer returns to us with something that will satisfy the membership ... then we intend to continue going forward, and we'll be in a legal strike position to withhold services on June 8," he said in an interview.

"We're not willing to commit to putting this off for another two weeks or a month just because the employer wants to sit at a table and do nothing."

Chapman said the outstanding issues include wages and the union's demand for defined-benefit pensions instead of defined-contribution plans — something most other health-care providers in the province already have.

He said the union also wants a standard three-year deal instead of a five-year contract as suggested by the employer.

In early April, the union's bargaining committee recommended acceptance of a tentative deal, but the membership rejected it last month.

Stacey Brown, a spokeswoman for Emergency Medical Care, issued a statement saying the conciliator handling the previous talks had informed them there was no point in meeting with the union after its "take-it-or-leave-it response" to the most recent contract offer.

"Despite this, we remain committed to reaching an agreement and look forward to meeting with the union and mediator," she said. "With respect to the union's items, that's for discussion at the table."

The company, which has a contract with the province's Emergency Health Services branch, has yet to say how it plans to deal with a strike.

When the province's paramedics walked off the job in October 1999, company managers stepped in to keep the service operating. But the strike didn't last long. The paramedics were legislated back to work after 18 hours.

Corbett issued a statement saying both sides are aware that a strike could have an impact on critical health services.

"No one wants to see a paramedic strike," Corbett said.

"I know both sides care deeply about patients, and I am confident they are working hard toward avoiding a work disruption. We believe in the principles of collective bargaining and we are optimistic a solution can be reached."

Progressive Conservative health critic Chris d'Entremont said the government has put Nova Scotians' safety at risk by waiting until "the eleventh hour" to bring in a mediator.

"This potential strike has been percolating for months," d'Entremont said in a statement. "The NDP let it get to the critical stage and now are scrambling."