Nova Scotia

Unions and health authorities to meet with conciliator as early as next week

Labour Minister Labi Kousoulis will convene a meeting as early as next week where a conciliator will attempt to jump-start contract talks between Nova Scotia's two health authorities and their health-care unions.

Nova Scotia Health Authority and IWK Health Centre requested help hammering out deal with health workers

(iStock)

Labour Minister Labi Kousoulis will convene a meeting as early as next week where a conciliator will attempt to jump-start contract talks between Nova Scotia's two health authorities and their health-care unions.

"Sometimes the process can take up to 14 days — sometimes a little bit longer — to get it started, but we will be initiating that process," Kousoulis told reporters at Province House on Friday.

The step comes at the request of IWK and Nova Scotia Health Authority officials who, after a year of talks, said they were no longer making progress with the unions. Both sides have characterized the talks as difficult and, at times, frustrating, and little progress has been made on any substantive issue.

"We are not just using an existing agreement and doing some tweaks," Carmelle d'Entremont, a vice-president with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, said in an interview with CBC News.

"This is really us needing to create a new agreement from what was many separate agreements held by separate unions in now a new construct where the [unions] are not negotiating independently."

The challenge of Bill 148

The contract talks are the first since the Liberals merged the district health authorities into a single provincial organization and, in an effort to reduce 50 collective agreements down to four, created a situation where all health-care unions must bargain as a council.

Union leaders have said the major challenge of getting a deal has been the threat of, and eventual proclamation of, Bill 148, which imposes financial terms of a contract. Without the ability to bargain over money, union leaders say there are few carrots they can take to members that would secure a favourable vote on a contract.

But there are many other matters that also need to be resolved, such as reconciling differences between contracts on matters such as sick time, as well as putting in place essential-service agreements that will dictate the staff levels that must be maintained if there was a strike.

Because of that, d'Entremont downplayed the effect Bill 148 has had on talks to date.

"The clauses that we're trying to work through, we would need to work through regardless of whether or not there was a discussion on the wage," she said.

"Every clause of this agreement is almost like a first agreement … and we're challenged to reach agreement on any of them."

Premier blames the unions

Premier Stephen McNeil said it's been a struggle at times to get all sides together at the bargaining table, but there remains plenty of room for discussion, even with Bill 148 in place.

"The fiscal envelop will meet the financial capacity of the province but there's lots of things to negotiate at the table," he said.

McNeil said he would allow arbitration if conciliation fails, but stressed that Bill 148 does not allow an arbitrator to go beyond the compensation package the government has outlined. He said he believes his government has followed the collective bargaining process.

"That takes a long time, especially when you have a partner that doesn't want to come to the table," he said of the health-care unions.

"I've been the first government in a long time that has said, 'I'm going to live within the fiscal framework of this province,' and I have to do that in order for me to provide the services that other Nova Scotians are looking for." 

Legislation prevents strikes for now

The Liberals passed legislation in 2014 that prevents health-care strikes until essential-service agreements are in place.

Jason MacLean, the president of the Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union, said in an email that unions have been more than willing to bargain and it's the employer who has yet to bring forward their full proposal.

In an interview on Thursday, MacLean said the inability to take job action and no room for talks about money means the employer holds all the cards in negotiations and unions have little leverage to help get a deal.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

With files from Jean Laroche

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