02/27/2014 10:32 EST | Updated 04/29/2014 05:59 EDT

Nova Scotia moves to block health-care strike with essential services law

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's Liberal government is promising to bring in legislation Friday making home-care workers an essential service to swiftly end a scheduled walkout by a group of health-care workers.

This is the first major dispute the government has faced since it took power last fall and its response drew criticism Thursday from unions that accused Premier Stephen McNeil of taking a heavy-handed approach to collective bargaining.

Home-support workers who supply services provided by Northwood Homecare and those working for the Victorian Order of Nurses would be affected by the law, which was released in draft form Thursday. The legislation also lists several locals of home-support workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

The law would require the province and the union to attempt to work out who is considered an essential worker, and if agreement isn't reached the matter is sent to the Nova Scotia Labour Board. McNeil said non-essential workers could still go on strike under the legislation after an essential services plan is completed.

McNeil rejected a last-minute offer to go to arbitration from the union in the Northwood dispute Thursday, saying in a letter the province's existing offer is "generous" and similar deals have been accepted by 90 per cent of public-sector workers.

"I urge you to return to the bargaining table and accept this offer as a way to avoid job action," he wrote.

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said employees she represents at Northwood will go on strike at 8 a.m. on Friday morning and remain out until the new law forces them to return to work.

The legislature is scheduled to be recalled an hour after the strike begins and the Liberals hold a large majority in the house.

The existing offer from the province would see wages for workers at Northwood rise from $16.67 to $17.95 as of April 1 in a three-year retroactive deal, Jessome said. The union wants to achieve parity with similar workers in hospitals, who will make $18.83 as of April 1.

"These workers deserve the same hourly wage as someone doing the same job in hospitals," Jessome said.

McNeil warned that if the union rejects the existing offer, the workers will face a lower offer when they return to the bargaining table.

"If it's not accepted and we go back to negotiations we will be negotiating on a new round of what will be affordable for the people of Nova Scotia," McNeil said after a cabinet meeting.

"Everyone has to play a role to ensure we can get ourselves back on solid footing to ensure we can grow the economy."

Jessome said the essential services legislation goes too far and weakens the union's bargaining power.

"Every worker that wants to exercise their right (to strike), it looks like they'll be hit with the hammer of legislation," she said.

The draft legislation defines essential employees as those who "assist persons with activities of daily living, which may include personal care, respite services, light housekeeping, meal preparation and laundry services." It says services are considered essential if they "prevent or limit" the loss of life.

Work would also be considered essential if it results in "serious harm or damage" to clients' health, or if it causes "serious harm or damage to or deterioration of property required for the performance of an essential home-support service."