Premier says health-care agreement respects government's ability to pay
Bargaining for three remaining groups of workers will happen this fall
Premier Stephen McNeil says he's pleased with a ruling by a mediator-arbitrator he says respects the government's ability to pay and its decision to end an "outdated" benefit, all while finalizing a collective agreement for 6,000 health-care workers.
William Kaplan's decision was released Wednesday following five days of meetings between union representatives and officials with the Nova Scotia Health Authority and IWK Health Centre.
The workers affected include laboratory technicians, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, continuing care workers, respiratory therapists, in-hospital paramedics and social workers.
While Kaplan will rule next week on rates for shift and weekend premiums, his award Wednesday brings to an end all other matters in a bargaining process that has stretched on for the better part of two years following the Liberal government's merger of the district health authorities.
Speaking to reporters Thursday in Halifax, McNeil suggested the reason for the delay was the inability of union members to resolve internal matters that stemmed from the creation of four bargaining units after the 2015 merger.
In fact, during negotiations both sides accused the other of stall tactics and filed complaints with the Labour Board. Officials from all four unions — Unifor, CUPE, the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union and Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union — have talked in the past about the challenges of trying to reduce dozens of collective agreements to just four.
While McNeil had talked for more than a year about not allowing an unelected third party to determine what the province could afford, the government agreed to mediation-arbitration following an emphatic strike vote by IWK health-care workers in the spring.
Strike vote instrumental
Despite McNeil's concerns, Kaplan upheld the Liberals' four-year wage package and the end of the long-service award, a benefit paid out at retirement the premier called "an outdated practice."
Two additional years were added to the contract, each with a two per cent wage increase, bringing the total length of the collective agreement to six years. Kaplan ensured a benefit most members of the bargaining unit with 25 years service received — a 3.5 per cent raise — was extended those who didn't have it, about 100 people.
NSGEU president Jason MacLean said Wednesday he was pleased with the deal, noting he didn't think it would have happened without the strike vote by IWK workers.
"They sent an overwhelming message to government and to the employer that they're willing to strike and that's what got the ball rolling," he said.
Among other things, the unions hailed that the deal preserved existing sick leave plans, improved job security and reassignment provisions, and allowed people moving between the IWK and Nova Scotia Health Authority to take seniority with them.
Getting to this point created major bad blood between McNeil's government and organized labour in recent years. MLAs have sat around the clock to speed through legislation, while large protests were a regular occurrence at Province House. At times, McNeil required a police escort just to leave the building.
McNeil said on Thursday the difficult times were necessary to get the province on stable financial footing and have money to spend on other things.
"The system needs to be sustainable," he said.
"This is about trying to be able to invest in health-care infrastructure, trying to invest in pre-primary, trying to ensure we have money to grow our population. That's what this is about."
Bargaining will move to the three remaining units — nursing, support services and administrative professionals — in the fall, with Kaplan being called upon if necessary.
With files from Jean Laroche and Mairin Prentiss