11/18/2014 09:02 EST | Updated 01/18/2015 05:59 EST

Health-care unions in Nova Scotia at odds as binding arbitration looms

HALIFAX - The leader of Nova Scotia's largest health-care union is accusing a nurses union of sabotaging a united labour front that would have avoided having an arbitrator decide which unions will represent health workers.

Joan Jessome, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, says the Nova Scotia Nurses Union didn't agree to create a bargaining association that allowed union members to remain in existing bargaining units.

"It's like we were kicked in the gut," Jessome said Tuesday, hours after the collapse of mediation talks between the province's health authorities and unions that represent health-care workers.

The Nova Scotia Nurses Union represents more than 6,700 registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and nurse practitioners, while the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union represents 4,371 registered nurses and licensed practical nurses.

Jessome said she believes the Nova Scotia Nurses Union isn't interested in her proposal because it stands to gain nurses from her union under government-mandated binding arbitration.

"The fact the NSNU walked away from an association ... technically sabotaged the opportunity for us to get an association," she said.

Janet Hazelton, the president of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union, was unavailable for comment. Her union issued a news release saying the government's law has put unions in a difficult position and does little to foster good relations within the labour movement.

"The parties, including the employers, could not agree on a common solution," said the news release.

The provincial government appointed arbitrator James Dorsey last month under legislation that shrinks the number of bargaining units from 50 to four — with distinct bargaining unit for nurses, health-care workers, clerical staff and support staff. The legislation will also reduce the number of district health authorities to two from 10 as of April 1.

A 45-day arbitration process began Tuesday and Dorsey is expected to deliver a decision by Jan. 1.

An arbitration hearing will be held beginning Dec. 9, though Jessome said her union has asked the arbitrator to first hear a constitutional challenge to the law. She said she expects a decision from Dorsey this week on whether he will hear that issue.

Unifor, which represents 4,000 health care workers, issued a statement saying a bargaining council has been used successfully in British Columbia and could be applied in Nova Scotia.

"We still believe that this is the best approach, the fairest approach, the solution that respects workers' rights and protects a stable public health care system," said Lana Payne, the Unifor director for Atlantic Canada.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees released a statement saying the Nova Scotia law has been designed to force unions to horse-trade members.

"No union worth their salt would ever consider doing that," said Danny Cavanagh, the Nova Scotia president of CUPE.

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