Seven unions that represent public sector employees in Nova Scotia want their say when the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal reviews the constitutionality of key provisions of Bill 148.

The law, proclaimed by the cabinet of Stephen McNeil on Aug. 22, imposes a wage pattern on thousands of public employees who were without a contract at the time. That included nurses and other health-care workers, as well as civil servants.

On Friday, the unions will officially ask the court to be considered parties in the case. The McNeil government itself referred the law to the court of appeal for an opinion on whether imposing wages violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The unions looking for standing include:

  • Nova Scotia Nurses' Union.
  • Canadian Union of Public Employees.
  • Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.
  • Service Employees International Union.
  • Nova Scotia Teachers Union.
  • Canadian Union of Postal Workers.
  • Unifor

At a joint news conference on Wednesday, the union leaders warned about the impact of the new law, as well as the possible consequences if the McNeil government keeps it on the books.

Aging workforce

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, highlighted the fact Nova Scotia hospitals rely on retired nurses to fill shifts and on an aging nursing workforce to keep hospital units fully staffed.

"If all of them decided, 'I'm done with this. I'm just going to retire,' we're going to be in big trouble," Hazelton said.

Janet Hazelton

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, says Bill 148 could have drastic effects on a system that relies on older workers. (Rob Short/CBC)

"There's so many nurses and others that are saying, 'What next? There was the retirement allowance, so what are they going to do to our sick time? So why don't I just get out now while the getting is good?'"

She said her assessment wasn't a threat, but if nurses started to refuse overtime systematically, "they'd have to close units."

Hazelton said her union represents 7,000 registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and nurse practitioners, 6,000 of whom will be 55 years old or older within the next five years. 

Impact on negotiations

Lana Payne, atlantic regional director for Unifor, said it wasn't just public employees who would feel the impact of the law. She said the Liberal government's actions have already started to affect other labour negotiations.

"This kind of wage restraint has a ripple effect in our economy," she said. "We are seeing employers at private sector bargaining tables lowering their wage offers because they are feeling emboldened by Bill 148 and what the Liberal government has done."

Lana Payne

Lana Payne, atlantic regional director for Unifor, said Bill 148 is having an impact on labour negotiations in unions that are not in the public sector. (Rob Short/CBC)

Nova Scotia Labour Minister Mark Furey stopped just short of saying the province would not oppose the union's request to be granted party status in the government's referral to the courts.

"Province would have no reason to oppose," he said. "That's a right of the labour movement. That's the right of any individual or group if they want to seek intervener status in these types of matters."

Being an intervener is not the same as being named a party to a court case.