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Bill ending Halifax nurses' strike passes

By: Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

 | Apr 04, 2014 - 10:54 AM |
HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's Liberal government put an end to a health care strike that barely lasted 24 hours Friday by passing essential services legislation in spite of an outcry from nurses who say it takes away their right to strike.

Premier Stephen McNeil quickly left the legislature Friday morning after the vote at the end of an all-night sitting of the house as dozens of nurses and union activists chanted "Shame" and "No Justice, No Peace."

About 2,400 unionized nurses represented by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union in the Halifax area hit the picket lines Thursday.

Union president Joan Jessome shed tears outside the legislature as she expressed her frustration with the law, saying the government has changed the face of collective bargaining in the province.

"They didn't just let the workers down, they've let every Nova Scotian down," she said. "We have been fighting for patient safety, we have been fighting for better working conditions, we have been fighting for the right things."

Jessome said the union told nurses to report to work and end their strike.

The law requires unions and employers throughout the health-care sector to have an essential services agreement in place before a strike or lockout. If such a deal can't be reached, an independent third party decides.

It applies to nurses, paramedics, ambulance dispatchers, hospital employees and people who work in homes for seniors, youth and people with disabilities. Up to 40,000 workers are covered by the law.

Relations between the government and the union soured when the Essential Health and Community Services Act was introduced Monday night.

Some nurses walked off the job Tuesday in a wildcat strike to protest a bill Jessome described as "draconian." They went back to work later that day after the Nova Scotia Labour Board issued a cease-and-desist order.

Health Minister Leo Glavine said the nurses have legitimate concerns over staffing levels in hospitals and the government will work to address them.

"We need to forge now a new day where the nurses feel good about their workplace and we know we have a hill to climb in that regard," he said.

McNeil has argued the law will bring labour stability to the health-care sector, pointing to three labour disruptions within seven months as his rationale for why it's needed.

He has also said the law will not take away a union's right to strike because workers can walk off the job once essential staffing levels have been negotiated or determined by the Nova Scotia Labour Board.

But the nurses' union says such deals can take up to six months to reach, effectively undermining the leverage of a strike.

The Progressive Conservatives and NDP voted against the bill.

Tory Leader Jamie Baillie wants binding arbitration to prevent strikes in the health sector.

NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald said the new law has poisoned labour relations.

"We have seen labour relations in the health care sector set back decades," said MacDonald. "It will take many years to overcome the kind of highly charged, poisoned relations that have just been set up."

The nurses are demanding higher staffing levels. They want a collective agreement that includes mandated nurse-to-patient ratios in the interests of patient safety.

But their employer, the Capital District Health Authority, said such tools are inflexible and there is no evidence they improve safety.

The strike resulted in hospital bed closures and the postponement of surgeries, as well as outpatients missing clinic appointments. While it has affected services at a number of hospitals and health centres in Halifax, its impact has extended beyond the city.

The hospitals provide medical treatment to people in the three Maritime provinces and some patients were transferred to other health districts in the region prior to the strike.

The nurses primarily work at four places in the Halifax area: the QEII Health Sciences Centre, Nova Scotia Hospital, East Coast Forensic Hospital and Public Health Services.

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