10/01/2014 10:45 EDT | Updated 12/01/2014 05:59 EST

Nova Scotia premier says he won't amend health-care labour legislation

HALIFAX - Premier Stephen McNeil says he's opposed to amending a health-care labour bill that has prompted protests outside the Nova Scotia legislature and a rebuke from a senior lawyer who says the legislation will create a "labour relations disaster."

Despite three days of demonstrations near the legislature, McNeil said Wednesday he's been encouraged by workers across the province who he says want an overhaul of the health sector's complex system for contract negotiations, which includes 50 bargaining units.

And he dismissed suggestions that Bill 1 could be altered to address concerns raised by the province's four health-care unions.

"The legislation is going through as it has been presented," he told a news conference.

McNeil's hardline stand came as the legislature's law amendments committee heard from health-care workers and their supporters who said the bill is a draconian attempt to squelch hard-won labour rights.

The legislation, which McNeil hopes to have passed by the end of the week, would merge health-care bargaining units, cutting them to four from 50 by April 1.

Under the Health Authorities Act, health workers who perform similar jobs would be represented by the same union. A mediator would determine which unions would represent the groups with input from the unions and the workers' employers.

If mediated negotiations end up in arbitration, the arbitrator would decide union representation. The government has said it wants uniformity in the representation of nurses, technologists, administrative and support workers.

Labour lawyer Ray Larkin, who has trade unions among his clients, told the committee that the changes will create "dysfunctional bargaining" because health-care employers will be given a say on what union represents their employees, but the employees will have no say at all.

"The bill kind of turns on its head the normal way you would think about a trade union," said Larkin, who has practised law for almost 40 years.

"I'm fearful that it will become extremely difficult to negotiate collective agreements ... because in some cases you'll have a majority (of employees) who are not represented by the union they chose."

Larkin said that under the existing system, the province's Labour Board typically determines bargaining units and conducts votes among employees to seek consensus.

"This bill takes that away from the Labour Board," he said.

"Essentially, the message to the (mediator/arbitrator) is: 'Pick the union that will be the least difficult to deal with."

Larkin went on to say that the bill would prohibit applications for union certification, decertification or displacement of one union by another.

"Not only do the employees not have a say in what union is going to represent them, but they will never have a say."

McNeil disagreed with Larkin. The premier argued the legislation would protect the four unions and the benefits employees have earned. As well, the reorganization will make the system more sustainable, he said.

"This legislation protects collective bargaining and will allow workers to be at the bargaining table with their employer," he said. "It doesn't take away anything that has been earned at the bargaining table."

The premier also shrugged off union warnings that the legislation will be challenged in court once it becomes law.

"We believe our legislation will withstand any test," he said.

Health-care worker Edith Fraser told the committee she believes the new restrictions under Bill 1 will prompt an exodus of nurses and other health workers.

Fraser, a member of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said her work with ill and elderly people in their homes is hard enough without having to deal with more labour shortages.

"Who is going to come to Nova Scotia in this labour environment?" said Fraser, a continuing care assistant from Truro. "This bill is about diminishing the power of unions."

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union also complained that some of its members were told there would not be enough time for them to speak to the committee.

"First, they introduce a bill that will take away the constitutional right of more than 23,000 people to vote on their union representation (and) now they are trying to take away their right to voice their opinion on the legislation," union president Joan Jessome said in a statement.

Outside the legislature, about two dozen health-care workers staged a rally with placards and chanting, but the demonstration Wednesday was small and quiet compared to the more boisterous protests on Monday and Tuesday.

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