03/03/2015 09:34 EST | Updated 05/03/2015 05:59 EDT

Nova Scotia to work with unions to determine health worker representation

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government has gone back to the bargaining table with unions representing health workers over the thorny issue of which employees the labour organizations will represent after health authorities are merged.

Premier Stephen McNeil says he sent the unions a proposal late last week and hopes a "constructive dialogue" will lead to progress in settling the future of labour negotiations in the health-care sector.

"We're moving forward and we're having the unions look over the proposal," he said Tuesday.

Health workers protested against a bill last fall that amalgamates health boards and shrinks the number of bargaining units from 53 to four by April 1. Labour leaders argued the bill was undemocratic and unconstitutional because it stated no union could represent more than one of the bargaining units for nurses, health-care workers, clerical workers and support staff.

McNeil wouldn't comment Tuesday on whether the government is willing to allow some form of bargaining association, which would let unions to keep their members and negotiate jointly.

The Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, Unifor and the Canadian Union of Public Employees wouldn't comment Tuesday, citing a news blackout.

The announcement comes after Health Minister Leo Glavine said last week that legislation to settle the issue would be the first item dealt with when the legislature resumes on March 26.

Glavine's assertion followed the government's dismissal of arbitrator James Dorsey, who issued a decision last month that settled only one of the four bargaining units.

Dorsey said in an initial ruling that he wanted unions to have a clear majority of members in the same type of bargaining unit before selecting them as the bargaining agent. He also raised the prospect of some form of union association where that wasn't the case.

NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald criticized McNeil on Tuesday for creating unnecessary instability in the health system.

"I'm assuming the government will be looking at the bargaining associations, which is always what the health-care unions have always said would allow the government to achieve its objectives without causing the kind of disruption we've seen in the past year," she said.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the province has backed down from the unions.

"I think Nova Scotians are going to have a lot of questions today about why he (the premier) blinked. ... We need to change the way health care is delivered and get our costs under control and make sure patients are looked after."

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