Nova Scotia·Opinion

Health care union showdown leads to fierce political drama

Last Friday’s news conference by Health Minister Leo Glavine, responding to a second arbitration decision by Jim Dorsey, was the rawest political drama I’ve seen in quite some time.

Graham Steele believes Liberal government will gain more public support in the end

Graham Steele says that Health Minister Leo Glavine blurted a couple of lines at a press conference Friday that may haunt the Liberal government. (CBC)

Last Friday’s news conference by Health Minister Leo Glavine, responding to a second arbitration decision by Jim Dorsey, was the rawest political drama I’ve seen in quite some time.

Glavine was frustrated, even angry, at Dorsey’s refusal to follow the government’s script.

His mistake was to go on stage before mastering his emotions.

Signature initiative

Reform of health-care labour relations is the signature initiative of the McNeil government.

It is, to date, their one big idea. It’s a three-act play.

The first act consisted of essential services legislation in the spring of 2014 that made it impossible for health-care unions to threaten the kind of broad-based strike that forced cave-ins by the Conservative and NDP governments.

Act two involved the consolidation of bargaining units and that happened last fall. This reduced the 50-plus health-care bargaining units to four. Each of the four existing health-care unions (Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Nova Scotia Nurses' Union and Unifor) would get one — and only one — of the bargaining units.

The final act will be collective bargaining in the fall.

The government was always walking a tightrope. They had a particular result in mind — they wanted all nurses to go to NSNU, and they wanted to kneecap the NSGEU — but they couldn’t write it into the law for fear of having the law ruled unconstitutional.

Enter Jim Dorsey

Dorsey is a well-respected mediator and arbitrator from British Columbia.

He was proposed by the unions, and accepted by the government.

The government’s problem is it wanted an usher to show the unions to their pre-assigned seats, but instead it got a co-director.

Dorsey’s two written decisions are essentially long warnings to the McNeil government that it’s going down the wrong road.

Dorsey made mincemeat of the Liberals’ legislation.

In his first decision, which Dorsey himself calls “rambling,” he tried to rewrite the Liberal script. Nobody saw it coming.

The Liberals were dumbfounded, but passed a regulation that they figured would put things right.

But in Friday’s ruling, Dorsey swatted the regulation aside, saying cabinet didn’t have the legal authority to pass it.

Then he assigned two bargaining units to the NSGEU — despite the legislation’s clear direction that no union could have more than one — and said he didn’t yet have enough information to assign the other two.

And Dorsey did it all behind a laughable legal fig leaf — that he was merely recognizing the true intention of the House of Assembly.

Enter Leo Glavine

No wonder Glavine was almost apoplectic when he entered the stage on Friday afternoon.

It’s frustrating to the government that they’re going to have to spend more political capital, going back to the House of Assembly for a third round of legislation.

The veil is dropping from the government’s pretence that it didn’t have a specific result in mind. That means it’s going to be much harder for the new bill to pass constitutional muster.

The Supreme Court of Canada has said, essentially, that “freedom of association” in the Charter of Rights means employers don’t get to tell workers which union they will belong to.

Glavine’s frustration over Dorsey is frankly justified, but one of the hard lessons of being a cabinet minister is that you must not speak when you’re off-balance.

Because he did, Glavine blurted a couple of lines that may haunt the McNeil government.

Near the beginning of the news conference, he said that the government wants the nurses to go to the NSNU. You can bet that line will be entered as evidence in the now-inevitable constitutional challenge.

And in response to a reporter’s question, Glavine mused that Dorsey’s bill might not be paid. When cooler heads prevail, he’s going to have to walk that one back. That’s banana-republic stuff.

The political calculation

Whatever happens next, the McNeil government has already achieved two important things. With essential-services legislation, the unions’ trump card has been taken away. With consolidation, the number of health-care bargaining units has been reduced to four.

Neither of these advances will be repealed by any future government. They had to be done, and the McNeil government did it.

The remaining political calculation is how much support from union members does the McNeil government lose as a result of the Dorsey fiasco, and how much public support does it gain?

Most observers I talk to believe the McNeil government comes out ahead, perhaps even way ahead, when this cold political calculation is done.

And I think they’re right.


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.


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