03/26/2015 01:01 EDT | Updated 05/26/2015 05:59 EDT

Nova Scotia government feels opposition scorn on health care bargaining

HALIFAX - The approach taken by the Nova Scotia government to settle which unions will bargain on behalf of health workers drew scorn Thursday from the opposition parties, who accused the Liberals of retreating when its tough tactics proved futile.

Under the changes introduced to the Health Authorities Act as the legislature's spring session opened, four councils would negotiate collective agreements on behalf of health workers when the number of health authorities is cut from 10 to two next week.

Health Minister Leo Glavine said the councils would bargain on behalf of nursing, health care, support and administrative workers.

The Nova Scotia Nurses Union would be the lead negotiator for nurses and licensed practical nurses, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union would bargain for health care workers, Unifor would handle talks for support workers and CUPE for administrative professionals.

Glavine said the changes would streamline bargaining by cutting the number of units from 50 to four and help eliminate protracted rounds of bargaining with unions.

"It shouldn't take years to negotiate and reach settlements," said Glavine. "It didn't make sense. We now have a better approach."

The legislative changes follow an agreement struck with the province's public-sector unions earlier this month after the government dismissed arbitrator James Dorsey, who was hired to settle issues surrounding union representation under a bill passed last fall.

That legislation was staunchly opposed by the unions. They argued it was undemocratic and unconstitutional because it said no union could represent more than one of the bargaining units for various health professionals. The unions had been advocating so-called bargaining associations.

NDP labour critic Frank Corbett said the changes represented a government retreat on a position the unions had advocated in negotiations last summer.

"They could have brought in a Jim Dorsey-esque person back in the summer and had it mediated then," said Corbett.

But then Corbett went further, saying Premier Stephen McNeil wanted to look like a tough guy in dealing with the unions.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said there has been a lot of turmoil and expense in getting the process back to where it was six months ago.

"We have an arrangement now that was proposed by the unions themselves and rejected by the premier last fall," said Baillie.

McNeil wouldn't rise to Corbett's bait and didn't concede defeat. The government wasn't close to getting what it wanted during last summer's negotiations, he added.

"Who members belonged to wasn't important to us. We just didn't see any other path to get the lead negotiator because they (unions) refused to give us one."

Under the changes, votes to strike or to ratify a collective agreement would be provincewide across each bargaining unit.

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