Nova Scotia's provincial government is rejecting a five per cent health-care wage demand from the province's largest public sector union.
Darrell Dexter's government is warning that if the wage increase — initially demanded by members of the Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union — is granted across the province to all public health-care unions, it could cost the system an extra $42 million a year.
"We believe it's not affordable for the taxpayers across the system," said Kathy MacNeil, the vice president of people at the Capital District Health Authority.
On Wednesday, the province's nine district health authorities and the IWK Health Centre in Halifax announced they are forging a united front as they begin bargaining on 50 collective agreements this year.
Blaise MacNeil, the CEO of South West Health, said in a statement that negotiating new collective agreements presents a "huge challenge" for the districts.
"Often what happens at one particular bargaining table is disconnected from the rest of the system," said MacNeil, speaking on behalf of the districts and the IWK Health Centre.
"What we are saying is that there is an impact and we can no longer afford for each district health authority and the IWK Health Centre to bargain in isolation. Nova Scotians expect us to act like a system and we are."
The province has asked the district health authorities and the IWK to cut spending in the next fiscal year by three per cent, a move that opponents said would add stress to the province's health-care system.
Wage demand matches nurses' increase
Joan Jessome, the president of the Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union, said the 3,800 health-care workers she is bargaining for want the 5.1 per cent wage increase.
"It certainly is one of the main demands of our members," she told CBC News on Wednesday.
The issue came to the forefront in November when 2,500 nurses in the Capital District Health Authority won an arbitration award against their employer.
Those nurses were awarded a 7.1 per cent wage increase over a three-year period, retroactive to Nov. 1, 2009.
The three-year agreement — which ends on Oct. 31, 2012 — includes wage increases of one per cent for the first two years, a 3.5 per cent increase effective Nov. 1, 2011 and a 1.6 per cent increase effective May 1, 2012.
The last two increases amount to a 5.1 per cent increase — the same amount now being demanded by thousands of other health-care workers.
"The 5.1 per cent has come through loud and clear in the demands for our members," said Jessome.
Talking points revealed
CBC News has obtained government talking points issued to spokespeople on the upcoming round of bargaining.
The five-page document repeatedly stresses the costs of the 5.1 per cent wage demand.
"When you factor in that we also have to reduce spending by 3 per cent and absorb wage increases, this would likely result in reduction of services," say the talking points.
"Let's be clear. This isn't about how much of 5.1 per cent will Capital Health have to cover and how much the province will cover. Ultimately, there is only one place that our funding comes from and that is the taxpayer. So, Nova Scotians need to ask themselves if they can afford to pay significantly more to maintain services."
The mock questions and answers also reveal a concession being sought by the Capital District Health Authority.
Under the heading titled "If employer proposal is released publicly," there is a question based on eliminating retention bonuses for registered nurses and licensed practical nurses.
Kathy MacNeil delivered the scripted response when asked about the concession by CBC News.
"Some of those provisions like retention were put in place at a point in time when we did experience shortages in certain disciplines," she said Wednesday.
"What we're finding today is some of those shortages no longer exist."
Jessome said the talking points and the health authorities banding together are setting the stage for a propaganda war.
"All the district health authorities said today was actually irresponsible because all of these unions have a right to get to the table and negotiate," she said.
"By them coming out and saying that, they've just sealed the fact. 'Well it's not there.' We're not going to the table begging."Collective Bargaining