Fate of Nova Scotia’s unions remains undecided

Protesters hitting the streets this past fall in Halifax to show their opposition to the Liberal government's Bill 1
Protesters hitting the streets this past fall in Halifax to show their opposition to the Liberal government’s Bill 1

By Shay Enxuga

December 17, 2014, marked the end of a weeklong arbitration session in Nova Scotia, although the final outcome of Bill 1 – the Health Authorities – is still yet to be decided. The Stephen McNeil Liberals passed this controversial legislation on October 3, 2014, amid nearly a week of around-the-clock protests by trade unionists and supporters. This bill radically restructures healthcare in Nova Scotia by merging the nine existing district health authorities into one, and merging the 50 previous bargaining units into just four: nurses, healthcare, administrative support, and service support.

Arbitration began on December 8, 2014, after mediated talks between the four health care unions – Unifor, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Nova Scotia Nurses Union (NSNU) and Nova Scotia Government Employees Union (NSGEU) – and the employer, the Health Authorities of Nova Scotia (HANS), failed to reach a resolution.

In a press release issued by CUPE at the close of mediation, CUPE Acute Care Coordinator Wayne Thomas states that, “Mediation only works if all parties involved feel vulnerable enough to work toward a solution.” However, CUPE argues that because of the way Bill 1 is structured, the employer had no incentive to reach a mediated solution. Instead, HANS just waited for the 45 days of mediation to expire and for arbitration to begin.

James Dorsey, the arbitrator appointed to handle the health authorities merger, was recommended by all four health care unions and accepted by the employer. Dorsey has over 37 years experience in arbitration, and previously worked on the health care merger in British Columbia in 2001. That merger resulted in a bargaining association model where unions work collaboratively to bargain on behalf of their membership.

During the arbitration sessions, Dorsey heard from the unions and the employer on issues regarding collective agreements, pay structure, seniority, and bargaining units. Throughout the week, both Unifor and CUPE remained committed to the bargaining association model while NSGEU continued to call for run-off votes. Although the unions proposed different alternatives to the issues of bargaining units they remained united in the opposition the employer’s proposal – which would see workers assigned to bargaining units. All of the unions agreed that the employer should not be involved in decisions regarding union representation for workers and that Bill 1 is an assault on organized labor and collective bargaining rights.

In an interview with rabble.ca, Lana Panye, Atlantic Director of Unifor, stated that, “We are all challenging Bill 1 with respect its infringement on Freedom of Association, Section 2D of the Charter.” Danny Cavanagh, CUPE Nova Scotia President, argued that, “Bill 1 put all four unions in the untenable position of having to horse-trade their own members. No union worth their salt would ever consider doing that. That’s what makes this bill so cynical and diabolical.”

Despite earlier statements over the summer that the government would consider alternative proposals to assigning workers bargaining units, during arbitration Dorsey questioned the employer as to whether the bargaining association model was ever on the table at all following the passing of the legislation. Indeed, the Liberals directly wrote into section 89 (1) of Bill 1 that each union, “may represent only one of the four bargaining units for a health authority,” thus leaving little room for interpretation.

The Liberal government’s refusal to consider either bargaining associations or run-off votes is a strategic attack on union solidarity. Bill 1 continues the Liberal government’s assault on organized labor. Since they were elected in October of 2013 they have gutted first contract arbitration and stripped health care workers of their right to strike with the passage of Bill 37.

Despite the auspicious claim that the selection of bargaining agents is meant to be “conducive to achieving stable and harmonious labor relations between the health authorities and unionized employees,” Bill 1 is a tactic to divide and conquer. This legislation is intended to weaken the strength of unions in Nova Scotia so that the liberals can fast track their austerity agenda.

Dorsey will give his decision on Monday, January 19, 2015 – a deadline that has been extended from January 1, 2015 at Dorsey’s request. Bill 1 is expected to come into effect on April 1, 2015.

 

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