The essential services law passed overnight Thursday to end a strike by nurses made for a game changer in Nova Scotia politics and labour relations. 

Striking Capital Health nurses went back to work this morning after Bill 37 was passed following an overnight sitting of the provincial legislature.

The bill covers more than just nurses at Capital Health. Now all unionized health-care workers will require an essential services plan signed off by the employer guaranteeing patient safety before any strike.

"The bill forces us back to work. It takes away our rights as a collective bargaining unit, but it doesn't solve our problems with patient safety and not having enough nurses to do the work that needs to be done," said Susan Talebezeadeh, a registered nurse.

Others say it's about time unions lost the ability to paralyze the health-care system to enforce their demands. Nova Scotia is the last province to enact essential services legislation.

 "Patients are the ones who are compromised in all of this," said Chris Power, president and CEO of Capital Health. 

Outpatient appointments at the Capital District Health Authority are going ahead as scheduled today. The normal surgical schedule will resume on Monday.

Patients whose care was postponed due to the strike will be contacted and their appointments rescheduled.

The union representing 2,400 nurses, however, vows to continue to fight the legislation, and says it will launch a constitutional challenge to the Essential Health and Community Services Act.

The new law is sparking more protests. Members of Unifor, Canada's largest private sector union, are demonstrating outside the provincial legislature. Activists with the Halifax-Dartmouth & District Labour Council have occupied the Bedford constituency office of Labour Minister Kelly Regan.

The legal strike lasted a little more than 24 hours. The nurses had also walked out illegally on Tuesday when the legislation was introduced, but were ordered back to work by the Nova Scotia Labour Board.

Power said they’ve been trying to get as many patients in today as possible after being down to an “emergencies only” level.

“There are many people who have urgent care needs and having their care postponed does impact them,” she said. 

“We’ve come to the edge so many times that the public have been impacted over the last few years a number of times.”

Nurses strike

Nurses wait outside the Halifax Infirmary before a vote on essential services legislation in the provincial legislature. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Nurses outside the Halifax Infirmary on Friday say they went on strike over concerns about patient care and are unhappy with the new law. 

"People are very upset, because it’s patient care," said Lisa Brimfield, an intensive-care nurse. "It comes from the heart, so it’s what we feel."

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), says the Liberal government has "changed the face of collective bargaining in this province."

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

Premier Stephen McNeil's government says Bill 37 is needed to guarantee certain levels of service during strikes by health-care workers.

It will force unions to work out an agreement with the employer on essential services before a walkout can take place. Health-care unions fear such negotiations would take months, delaying any strike action.

"We’ll be challenging this in the courts," said Jason MacLean, first vice-president of the NSGEU. "We don't believe this is a fair law and I think we can do it under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

Law pours 'salt on the wound'

The Progressive Conservatives and the NDP opposed Bill 37. Maureen MacDonald, the NDP's interim leader, says it only pours "salt on the wound."

"If anybody thinks these problems are going to be dealt with by this bill and not made worse by this bill, then they’re dreaming in Technicolour," she said. "The problems that nurses are describing will not go away because of this legislation."

A major sticking point during contract talks has been a union demand for nurse-to-patient ratios, something opposed by Capital Health.

McNeil has acknowledged there are concerns around staffing, but has argued ratios should not be included in a collective agreement. He said essential services legislation is in place in other parts of the country.