02/28/2014 07:06 EST | Updated 04/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Strike by Halifax home-care workers prompts Liberals to bring in bill

HALIFAX - A strike by home-care workers in Halifax pitted Nova Scotia's fledgling Liberal government against one of its largest unions Friday after it introduced essential services legislation to end the walkout.

The government's bill was sent to committee where 128 witnesses signed up to speak to the legislation, slowing its progress through the house.

Early Friday evening, all three parties reached an agreement to reconvene the house Saturday morning while the committee continued hearing witnesses. That means the earliest the bill can be passed into law is Saturday.

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union says striking workers at Northwood Homecare want the same pay as their counterparts in hospitals.

Premier Stephen McNeil said Northwood home-care workers have been offered a three-year contract with a 7.5 per cent raise. He had threatened to pull that offer off the table, but a spokesman for the premier said Friday it was still there for the union to accept.

"We have a very generous offer that's on the table," said McNeil.

McNeil defended the legislation, arguing it doesn't take away the right to strike but would require an employer and union to determine who is considered an essential worker. If an agreement can't be reached, the matter would be submitted to the Nova Scotia Labour Board.

"All we're saying here today is that we believe that home care support workers are an essential part of delivering some of the home-care services to the people of this province. They need to be in place," he added.

The home-care workers supply services provided by Northwood to about 1,800 people. They have been without a contract since March 2012.

The legislation would also affect some other home-care workers employed by other organizations.

The government's assertion that the legislation is needed to protect vulnerable people is wrong, said union president Joan Jessome.

"This isn't about the frail and the elderly," Jessome said in an interview as the strike started. "This is about busting the collective bargaining process for public-sector workers."

She said the strike could have been avoided had the government accepted the union's offer to resolve the dispute through arbitration.

"If (the premier) was really concerned about public safety, then he would have accepted the offer," Jessome said.

Under the offer before the union, hourly wages for Northwood home-care workers would rise to $17.95 as of April 1. Hospital workers doing similar jobs will make $18.83 as of April 1.

As the legislature debated the bill, hundreds of strikers demonstrated outside, many of them carrying placards.

The workers lined the sidewalks of downtown streets chanting: "What do we want? Parity! When do we want it? Now!" The sound of cowbells and makeshift noisemakers fashioned from pots and pans erupted as some drivers slowed down and honked their horns.

Administrators at Northwood say alternative arrangements have been made to help some, but not all home-care clients.

This is the first major dispute the government has faced since it assumed power last fall. The governing Liberals hold a large majority in the house.

"The legislation will pass," Jessome said. "But it's not going to pass without some serious concerns and hiccups. The labour movement is very upset. Nobody likes this kind of heavy hand."

NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald suggested the government was sending a message to other health-care workers with its bill.

"I hope that's not the case, but if it is the case, then that's just plain wrong," she said in the legislature. "These workers deserve respect and deserve to be treated fairly and deserve to be dealt with on their own merits."

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the legislation is vague and doesn't ensure care for seniors, calling it a "one-time, band-aid bill."

"How many seniors and vulnerable Nova Scotians will go without care once this bill is in effect, and the answer is they don't know," the Opposition leader told the house. "That's not acceptable."