Nova Scotia health merger bill debated as protests heat up

The frustration of some of Nova Scotia's unions spilled over Tuesday when protesters blocked traffic outside Province House as inside, the Liberal government continued to quickly push through legislation that reorganizes the bargaining structure in the health-care system.

Bill passes two readings and moves to law amendments, with 39 speakers signed up

A group of protesters sit in front of Premier Stephen McNeil's vehicle, blocking it from leaving Province House. (Molly Segal/CBC)

The frustration of some of Nova Scotia's unions spilled over Tuesday when protesters blocked traffic outside Province House as inside, the Liberal government continued to quickly push through legislation that reorganizes the bargaining structure in the health-care system.

By using its majority in the legislature, the government moved Bill 1 — known as the Health Authorities Act — to the law amendments stage on Tuesday night with the intent of getting to the third and final reading sometime on Friday.

A total of 39 speakers signed up to speak to the law amendments committee.

"There's people that's going to leave this province. They're going to leave and the health-care system is going to crash. I know this," one worker tearfully told the committee.

"I've seen people writing their resignations. You don't care."

Public sector unions are upset the provincial government does not plan to give health workers a vote on union representation as it moves to consolidate Nova Scotia's health authorities. The bill would merge bargaining units, cutting them to four from 50 by April 1.

The unions have said the bill violates labour rights, but Premier Stephen McNeil argued the legislation would protect patients and workers while ensuring health care is sustainable.

"We've been given a mandate to run the finances of this province and to ensure that essential services are there," McNeil said inside the legislature. "That's exactly what we are going to do."

The Progressive Conservatives kicked off question period on Tuesday with Progressive Conservative House leader Chris d'Entremont saying his party is not endorsing the bill. The New Democratic Party followed up, pointing out the $5 million in savings in the merger is a fraction of the overall $2 billion spent on hospital budgets each year.

The first recorded vote on the bill passed 39 to seven. A second vote passed a few hours later by a vote of 38 to seven.

"You want chaos," Gwenyth Dwyn, a health-care worker, told the law amendments committee. "I fear for this province."

Meeting invitation turned down

Earlier on Tuesday, a black SUV carrying McNeil was caught up in the protest outside Province House, with several people sitting in front of the vehicle chanting "Shame" as police cleared the way. One man was wrestled to the ground by officers and arrested.

The demonstration on Tuesday was much smaller than the turnout on Monday, when the bill was introduced.

The legislation says a mediator will be appointed to try to get the four existing public sector unions to agree to represent one of the new bargaining units defined as nursing, health care, clerical and support.

If the mediation fails to reach an agreement, the mediator becomes an arbitrator with the authority to assign a union to one of the bargaining units.

The unions have said they want to form a bargaining association to avoid splintering their members in contract negotiations. Under their proposal, the association would negotiate collective agreements for different unions, without workers changing which unions they belong to.

Health Minister Leo Glavine had said there could be room to negotiate something similar to what the unions want during the mediation phase — so the union leaders gathered at Province House on Tuesday afternoon to try to get clarification from the minister.

A letter from Health Minister Leo Glavine sent to union leaders September 30. (CBC)

After several hours of waiting, Glavine turned down their invitation for a meeting.

"I have previously outlined our reservations in regard to the bargaining association and those reservations are as relevant today as when I first expressed them," Glavine said in a letter addressed to the unions.

"I remain hopeful that the mediator will be successful in helping the parties to find creative solutions."

Joan Jessome, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said the fact that Glavine wouldn't meet with the union leaders shows the government isn't serious about reaching a deal.

The unions said it's a fight that's only beginning.

"This is going to be a very long three years for this government and the fight back starts right now, today," said Lana Payne, the regional director for Unifor.

The law amendments committee sat until 11:35 p.m. on Tuesday and is set to resume at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday.

With files from The Canadian Press

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