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Bill 1 mediation talks fail

Charter ruling last chance for democratic solution, Jessome says

by Robert Devet

Joan Jessome, president of the NSGEU, talks to reporters after Bill 1 mediation talks failure. She believes a charter challenge still offers glimmer of hope. Photo Robert Devet
Joan Jessome, president of the NSGEU, talks to reporters after Bill 1 mediation talks failure. She believes a charter challenge still offers glimmer of hope. Photo Robert Devet

K'JIPUKTUK (Halifax) - Mediation talks between four unions representing public health care workers and their employer have failed.

The government-imposed talks were to build consensus on how to accommodate Bill 1, legislation introduced in the fall that reduces the number of public health care collective agreements to four, based on classification.

Bill 1 will force many thousands of health care workers to abandon their current union and join a new one.

Joan Jessome, President of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), squarely blames the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union (NSNU) for undermining what was to be a united front going into the mediation talks.

“We were all on the same page going into this, working with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Unifor and the NSNU, wanting to resolve this through some sort of bargaining association approach,” Jessome told a news conference held at the Burnside NSGEU office this morning.

Bargaining associations allow unions to keep their existing membership and bargain collective agreements together. This approach has been used successfully in British Columbia and several European countries.

“UNIFOR, CUPE and the NSGEU, we got along very well, and we came up with a model that wasn't perfect but we could all live with quite a bit of it,” Jessome says. “And then it would be up to Dorsey (the government-appointed mediator) to make a decision on what we could not agree on.”

But, says Jessome, the NSNU informed the other unions that it was not interested in bargaining associations and that it wanted the nurses issue to go to arbitration.

“It was like we were kicked in the gut, not just us, all the unions,” Jessome says.

During the arbitration stage, which formally starts on December 9th, Dorsey will rule on which union gets to represent nursing, non-nursing front-line health care workers, clerical and administrative workers respectively.

Bill 1 is written in such a way that an arbitrator has no option other than ruling that the nurses that are currently represented by the NSGEU must move to the NSNU.

But there is still hope, Jessome believes.

Dorsey has agreed to rule by the end of this week on a charter challenge that the NSGEU filed weeks ago.

“Dorsey can deem the legislation unconstitutional and he can rule that he can't apply the legislation,” Jessome says.

“He can rule that he can make decisions outside of the legislation's framework. He can also send it back to mediation,” she says.

That scenario would bring bargaining associations back to the table. Or could result in a ruling by Dorsey that allows members to vote for the union that they want to represent them.

“This is very disappointing for us,” NSGEU union activist and Registered Nurse Robert Chisholm tells the Halifax Media Co-op.

Chisholm believes that it is not lost on the Liberal government that the NSGEU is by far the more militant of the two nurses' unions.

“It concerns me that I may end up belonging to a union that is not going to fight for me,” Chisholm says. “The NSGEU is known to be tenacious, and to fight hard for its members.”

“I worry that all of the hard-fought gains we have accomplished are going to be lost. We know that wage restraint is on its way, concession bargaining is on its way, privatization is on the table, and we are very worried because we are going to end up in a union that is quite weak.”

In a press release CUPE's Nova Scotia president Danny Cavanagh calls the bill cynical and diabolical.

“Bill 1 put all four unions in the untenable position of having to horse-trade their own members. No union worth their salt would ever consider doing that,” Cavanagh says.

UNIFOR Atlantic Director Lana Payne says that she is still committed to the idea of bargaining associations.

“We went into mediation with this as our goal. We worked hard to get there, and we still believe that this is the best approach, the fairest approach, the solution that respects workers' rights and protects a stable public health care system, on which the people of Nova Scotia depend," Payne is quoted as saying in the UNIFOR news release.

A NSNU news release does not address any of the contentious issues raised by Jessome.  

“The health care unions were all in a difficult position and the legislation has done little to foster good relations within the labour movement,” it states.

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert

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Topics: LabourHealth
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What is the attention span of Media Co-op readers?

Hey, anyone remember this?

It's an earlier Media Co-op story on Bill 1, about when NSGEU broke ranks with the other unions to pursue their own interests.

If the bickering among bureaucrats for who gets to discipline labour on behalf of capital weren't sad it would be funny.

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