01/19/2015 12:03 EST | Updated 03/21/2015 05:59 EDT

Nova Scotia can trim number of health bargaining units, arbitrator rules

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government's plan to cut the number of bargaining units representing health-care workers won the approval of an arbitrator Monday, but a decision on which unions represent them has been put off to later.

James Dorsey's decision leaves open the possibility that unions could negotiate mergers as the government pushes ahead with its plan to cut the number of bargaining units representing 24,000 workers from 50 to four.

Under legislation passed last fall, there will be separate unions for nurses, health-care workers, clerical workers and support staff, and each bargaining unit had to have a different union representing it. Some of the unions argued the structure broke charter rights on freedom of association, but Dorsey rejected those arguments.

The Health Authorities Act also merges the number of health districts from 10 to two by April 1.

Health Minister Leo Glavine said he expects further clarification on Dorsey's decision at a hearing on Feb. 2, but Monday's ruling achieves the government's goals.

"We will have a substantially streamlined labour negotiating process in the future," he said.

Union leaders took solace from the decision, finding positives for each of their positions.

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said Dorsey's ruling prevents the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union from taking over responsibility for the province's 10,000 nurses and allows her to argue that nurses and other health workers can remain in her union.

But nurses' union president Janet Hazelton said her union might still be chosen to represent all nurses if the province tells Dorsey the IWK Health Centre and the provincial health authority are a single employer, which would give her union a majority of the nurses.

Danny Cavanagh, president of CUPE Nova Scotia, said he thinks the decision places the onus on the unions to work out a form of bargaining association, where each union would keeps its members but they bargain as a single group.

"It's no slam dunk for the government. ... He's saying to everybody, get back to the table and make it work."

Lana Payne of Unifor agreed that Dorsey's decision means the unions could still form a bargaining association.

"His approval of the proposal opens the door that Health Minister Leo Glavine closed in October of last year before the government introduced the legislation," Payne, the union's Atlantic regional director, said in a news release.

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