10/02/2014 12:18 EDT | Updated 12/02/2014 05:59 EST

Disunity among health-care unions hurts fight against legislation: labour leader

HALIFAX - The labour movement's ongoing fight against controversial health-care legislation in Nova Scotia is being weakened by disunity and duelling priorities, the head of one union representing thousands of nurses said Thursday.

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said a widening rift with other unions caught in the province's health-care bill is confusing the public and weakening their message.

"People are wondering, 'Why are they asking for this and why are they asking for that.' So what it does it plays into the hands of the government," she said as members of her union chanted and noisily banged on plastic barrels outside the legislature at a rally.

"I feel a bit isolated standing here being the only union adamantly, strongly asking for our health-care workers in this province not to lose their right to vote."

Jessome said her priority is to ensure her members have the right to hold a run-off vote to decide which union they want to join as the province moves to reduce the number of bargaining units down to four from 50.

That differs from the Nova Scotia Nurses Union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and Unifor, which are together pushing a proposal for a bargaining association model. Under their proposal, the association would negotiate collective agreements for different unions, without workers changing the unions they belong to.

The three unions issued a joint release Thursday that restated their support for the association, but it did not include the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.

Danny Cavanagh, CUPE's regional president, said the model works in British Columbia and wouldn't pit worker against worker as the unions restructure.

He denied there was division in union ranks, saying they have differed on positions before.

"Among the unions, there was never any consideration that there would be carve-outs of existing bargaining units or run-off votes,” said Cavanagh.

"The unions' bargaining association is the only true reflection of democracy, and the only way all of our members can have their rights protected."

But Jessome insisted the unions should be fighting for the right to have members decide themselves which union represents them and accused the other labour groups of being willing to trade their members.

"I wanted to go to the table and let my members choose. That's the difference," she said. "I don't trade. They're not animals, they're not cattle."

The unions have been holding noisy protests outside the legislature since Monday over the government's plan to streamline the health sector's complex system for contract negotiations by April 1.

Under the Health Authorities Act, health workers who perform similar jobs would be represented by the same union, which would be determined by a mediator. 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.

Premier Stephen McNeil has said he won't amend the legislation.

The bill, which would also see the amalgamation of the province's health districts, is expected to get final approval in the legislature on Friday.

During demonstrations on Tuesday, 41-year-old Jason MacLean, the vice president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, was arrested and released to face a charge in court at a later date of assaulting a police officer.

But Halifax Regional Police said Thursday the resident of Sydney, N.S., will not be charged after a review that is routinely done after an arrest involving a protest.

"After reviewing the totality of the incident, it has been determined that there's insufficient evidence to support the laying of a charge of assaulting a police officer," police say in a statement.

The police also issued an apology, adding that they tried to meet with MacLean but he was unavailable. At his request, they informed his legal counsel of the decision.

"While we would have liked to have met with the man in person to discuss the matter, we publicly apologize to him for the situation," the statement says.