The province will appoint a conciliator after calls by the two health authorities for help reaching a new contract with health-care unions.

In a memo to staff obtained by CBC News, IWK Health Centre vice-president Steve Ashton said talks have been formally underway since the first exchange of proposals in October 2016. Since then, the IWK and Nova Scotia Health Authority have met with the Council of Health Care Unions for 17 days to try to get a new deal.

"All parties have acknowledged that this is a very complex round of bargaining," Ashton writes.

"We have now reached a point where we are not progressing in our efforts to finalize a new collective agreement."

First contract since merger

An identical email was sent to provincial health authority staff by Carmelle d'Entremont, a vice-president with the NSHA. The government's decision to appoint a conciliator follows a request from the IWK and provincial health authority.

This is the first contract negotiation since the Liberal government merged the district health authorities in 2014 to create the provincial agency and took steps to reduce 50 collective agreements down to four.

The process has been rife with challenges almost from the start, with each side filing a complaint to the labour board about the other along the way and little if any progress having been made on any substantive issues.

Little motivation to bargain

Nova Scotia Nurses' Union president Janet Hazelton said she wasn't surprised by what's happened.

"It's been a very long and frustrating process."

Hazelton said she thinks both sides went into talks in good faith, but she said the looming threat of and eventual proclamation of Bill 148 by the Liberal government, which imposed a wage package on workers, has made it extremely difficult for union leaders to reach a contract agreement they could take to their membership because the employer has nothing to give.

"And even if [union leadership] did recommend, it's unlikely our members would vote for it because there's not much in it."

Union cites government interference

NSGEU president Jason MacLean placed the lack of progress squarely at the feet of Premier Stephen McNeil.

"It's interference by the premier and the premier alone."

MacLean said both sides are willing to go to arbitration, but McNeil will not allow it.

"We approached him before the election — that's how bad bargaining has been."

Bill 148 must go

McNeil has repeatedly said he would not allow an arbitrator to determine what the government can or cannot afford to pay. That issue is at the heart of a court review of Bill 148 the Liberals have requested.

Only the removal of Bill 148 can get negotiations back on track and lead to an eventual deal, said MacLean.

"I hate to sound like a broken record to you, but you really need to actually see the harm that Bill 148 does."

A new process for everyone

One of the reasons things have taken so long, said Hazelton, has been the challenge of finding a way to address different benefit policies from union to union for the same class of worker, such as sick time, for example.

There is also the outstanding issue of settling essential services agreements, something that must happen for every unit of every hospital in the province. Hazelton said "very little if any progress" has been made on that issue.

The messages to health authority staff said the call for a conciliator "does not mean that any job action or strike action is imminent." Legislation the Liberals passed in 2014 prevents health-care unions from going on strike before essential services agreements are in place.

No one from the IWK or provincial health authority was available for an interview Thursday night.