03/13/2015 01:55 EDT | Updated 05/13/2015 05:59 EDT

Settlement reached in dispute over Nova Scotia health-care bargaining

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government reached a deal Friday with public-sector unions on the representation of health workers in collective bargaining with the province, ending a months-long impasse in the dispute.

Under the deal, the four affected unions will continue to represent their current members but will bargain collective agreements jointly as four union councils.

Premier Stephen McNeil says the agreement streamlines the bargaining process from 50 to four units, which was part of its goal in a bill passed last fall that also amalgamates the province's health boards, effective April 1.

"This is providing the clarity that we as a government needed when it came to bargaining," he said. "This allows both the employer and the union representing the employees to come to the bargaining table as equals for the first time in a very, very long time when it comes to health care."

The four unions involved are the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, Unifor and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

They protested against the bill last fall, arguing the legislation was undemocratic and unconstitutional because it said no union could represent more than one of the bargaining units for nurses, health-care workers, clerical workers and support staff.

The government says each of the four unions will lead one bargaining process, with nursing led by the nurses' union, health care led by the government and general employees union, support workers fronted by Unifor and administrative professionals led by CUPE.

McNeil returned to the bargaining table to get a deal with the unions 10 days ago after the government dismissed an arbitrator who it hired to settle issues surrounding union representation.

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, says the province's health-care workers have won what they wanted.

"I think this is a huge victory for health-care unions ... and for the nurses in this province," she told a news conference.

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said there is virtually no difference between Friday's agreement and a union proposal put forward last summer for a bargaining association.

"It's unfortunate that the premier took six months to come to the position that we were at six months ago. But I'm pleased that he did," she said.

Progressive Conservative health critic Chris d'Entremont said the process has wasted six months to end up with the unions representing the same workers.

"This is an embarrassing situation for the McNeil government," d'Entremont said in a statement. "They rushed their flawed legislation through despite our best efforts to warn them. The result is that they've now caved, having wasted time and money to get right back where we started."

But McNeil said the government has achieved its goal.

"This has been about ensuring that we're not in a constant cycle of bargaining," he added. "That's why we went from 50 to four."

The government says it will introduce legislation in the spring to bring the agreement into law.