03/03/2014 10:51 EST | Updated 05/03/2014 05:59 EDT

Labour battle brews as Nova Scotia union plans legal challenge of home-care law

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's largest union says it will mount a court challenge of a new law aimed at preventing strikes in the home-care sector in what is the latest sign that a battle is brewing between labour groups and the provincial government.

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said Monday it will launch a legal challenge of the province's Essential Home-Support Services Act, passed Saturday by the majority Liberal government.

The law was aimed at preventing a strike by about 420 home-care workers in the Halifax area. They returned to work Sunday after a brief two-day walkout.

Jessome said she is concerned that the government is violating workers' rights to bargain collectively and unfairly targeting a specific group of workers.

She said the challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would be filed at a later date with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

A challenge of a similar law in Saskatchewan is before the Supreme Court of Canada and a decision is expected in May, she added.

"We'll wait to see what happens with Saskatchewan as we move forward with ours," she said.

The government says the law doesn't take away the right to strike but requires the sides in a dispute to determine who is an essential worker, and if an agreement can't be reached, the matter would be submitted to the Nova Scotia Labour Board for resolution.

But Jessome said she now wonders where the incentive is for employers to bargain. She said that's why the union has also filed bad faith bargaining complaints with the Nova Scotia Labour Board on behalf of two other bargaining units representing 140 hearing and speech workers and public health addictions and continuing care workers.

"There was no bargaining, (management) walked away from the table," Jessome said. "I am taking this as a signal because there is no willingness to negotiate."

Rick Clarke, who heads the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, the umbrella group for the unions involved in the home-care dispute, said he believes the law is more about provincial finances than it is about health and safety.

"This tells us that there's a very tight fiscal position coming out of this government that I think is going to have a negative impact ... on those that receive the services provided by public sector workers," said Clarke.

Premier Stephen McNeil wasn't backing down Monday, nor was he denying the government is tightening its fiscal belt in the face of an anticipated $481.7 million deficit for 2013-14.

"We have a fiscal envelope." McNeil said. "You cannot continue to outstrip the growth of the private-sector economy."

McNeil called recent settlements that saw some public sector unions receive more than a seven per cent pay raise over three years an "unsustainable approach."

Danny Cavanagh, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Nova Scotia, which is also named in Bill 30, said his union is considering its legal options.