Halifax nurse walk-out to have Maritime-wide repercussions

Nurses in the Halifax region say they're walking off the job Tuesday at 7 a.m., even though they won't be in legal strike position until Thursday.

Strike announcement came shortly after province announced back-to-work legislation

NSGEU president Joan Jessome reacts to the government's decision to introducing back-to-work legislation. 2:13

Some nurses in the Halifax region say they're walking off the job Tuesday at 7 a.m., even though they won't be in legal strike position until Thursday.

The announcement came shortly after the Nova Scotia government introduced essential services legislation in the contract dispute between the Capital District Health Authority and the union representing its nurses.

The back-to-work legislation also applies to other health care unions including those who work in seniors homes, paramedics, 911 operators and those working in community services. It doesn't take away the right to strike, but it severely limits the number of people who can walk off the job.

"It is very apparent, if you look in the last seven months, under two governments, when we've had labour disruptions there has been nothing there to ensure that essential services are there for Nova Scotians. This is about striking the balance between ensuring Nova Scotians have the services when they need them and as well protecting the worker’s right to strike," said Premier Stephen McNeil.

Joan Jessome, president of Nova Scotia General Employees Union Local 97, fired back at the government, calling the back-to-work legislation "a direct attack on nurses."

"We end up with a piece of legislation that effectively takes the right to strike and the right to collective bargain away from over 30,000 healthcare and community service workers," said Jessome. 

Joan Jessome (standing) says nurses will walk off the job Tuesday morning. (CBC)

"It's a shame. I think Mr. McNeil is a traitor. He [elected] on the promise that he supported the right to strike and not six months into it, as soon as any of the members wanted to exercise their right or use it to get a better collective agreement and speak up for patient safety he just rips that right away from them."

Last week, Health PEI began transferring Island patients recovering from surgery in Halifax, back to P.E.I. in anticipation of a strike. The health authority said those requiring emergency surgery will be sent to New Brunswick. 

Talks break off

Mediated talks between the NSGEU and their employer, the Capital District Health Authority, broke off Monday evening. 

On Monday morning, talks had resumed as members of the NSGEU met with the government-appointed mediator first. Officials with the Capital District Health Authority were in a different room in the same building.

Jessome said there are emergency protocols in place to ensure there will be nurses to staff critical positions.

"But the nurses that are supposed to show up at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning, they will make the decision on whether they want to show up for work or not tomorrow morning. When you've got legislation like this, at 7 o'clock at night and we're still at the bargaining table — you can imagine how upset they are and how angry they are. So, anything goes tomorrow morning," she said.

Employers or unions that take job action before an essential services agreement is in place can be fined $100,000 for the first day, and $10,000 for each additional day. People can be fined $1,000 for the first day and $200 for each additional day.

"A fine is the least of our worries at this point," said Jessome.

Kerri Webster-McIsaac, an intensive care nurse at the Victoria General Hospital, said she's sickened by the news because it takes away the right of collective bargaining and the right to strike.

"I can't believe they'd set us back like this. We're asking for patient safety numbers. We're not able to get them in any other way than to bring them to a bargaining table. We have an employer who is not doing it on a day to day basis. To bring in essential services legislation is going to cripple our right to any further fair negotiations," she said.

Key issue remains nurse to patient ratios

Earlier on Monday, Jessome said the union had changed its position but she did not provide details.

The key issue is a union demand for mandatory nurse-to-patient ratios. Capital Health is opposed, saying it needs more flexibility.

John Gillis, a spokesman with the Capital District Health Authority, said as the strike deadline approaches, the hospital is continuing to cancel surgeries and transfer patients to hospitals outside the city.

Gillis expects the number of acute care beds at the district's hospitals will fall from 634 down to 432 if there is a strike — a decrease of 37 per cent.

He said eight surgeries were postponed on Monday and 19 more would be postponed on Tuesday.

With files from The Canadian Press