03/20/2014 02:17 EDT | Updated 05/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Nova Scotia premier dismisses resignation threat by nurses in contract dispute

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's premier says he can't believe Halifax area nurses will follow through on a promise to resign en masse rather than be legislated back to work in the event of a strike.

Stephen McNeil responded Thursday to media reports that say the union that represents nurses working in the Capital District Health Authority voted in favour of a mass resignation if the government passes essential services legislation.

McNeil said after weeks of union television ads talking about patient safety, he can't believe their recent threat of wide-scale resignations.

"I would find it hard to believe that the organization that has been paying for those ads would walk away from their responsibility to deliver patient safety," said McNeil.

He said resignations shouldn't be used as a tool in the collective bargaining process and he wondered whether the tactic would breach the nurses' code of conduct.

"I would suggest to anyone that walking away from their responsibility to provide services would be questioned," McNeil said.

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, which represents the 2,500 nurses involved in the labour dispute, could not be reached for comment.

Capital Health released a letter Thursday from its CEO to Jessome threatening legal action if the resignations take place.

"As you are no doubt aware, mass resignations have been held to constitute illegal strikes," wrote Chris Power. "Therefore should members of Local 97 submit mass resignations the employer will take whatever legal action it feels appropriate to counteract such dangerous, unlawful behaviour."

Power said such action could include an application to the Labour Board for a cease-and-desist order, a grievance filed under the collective agreement, disciplinary action against individual employees and complaints to the College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia.

She also said the health authority expects a letter by the end of Friday confirming that the union does not endorse resignations and that it will work to prevent its membership from taking part in a strike.

Health Minister Leo Glavine said Capital Health has a contingency plan for replacements if the nurses carry through with their threat, but he wasn't clear where the replacements would come from and how many of them there would be.

The contract dispute has gone to mediation and Glavine said he has hope some middle ground can be worked out.

A conciliator's report was filed Wednesday, meaning the nurses could be in a legal strike position April 3.

The union says talks with the employer broke off Monday over the issue of nurse-to-patient ratios, something the union says would improve patient safety.

Capital Health says there is no evidence that shows mandated registered nurse-to-patient ratios guarantee improved patient safety.