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Talking strategy: NSGEU special convention addresses attacks on workers

by Robert Devet

Joan Jessome, President of the NSGEU, at a rally in support of Home Support Workers in February 2014.  Photo Robert Devet
Joan Jessome, President of the NSGEU, at a rally in support of Home Support Workers in February 2014. Photo Robert Devet

K'JIPUKTUK (Halifax) - Yesterday the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees' Union (NSGEU) held a special convention to talk about the need to confront attacks on workers' rights by the provincial Liberal government.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, Joan Jessome, President of the NSGEU, tells the Halifax Media Co-op.

"Liberals have only been in power since October, but they realy hit hard at us," says Jessome, pointing to Bill 30 and Bill 37, essential services legislation severely affecting the right to strike for home support workers and health care workers.

Well over 300 delegates, representing all NSGEU locals, attended the event held at the Cunard Centre in Halifax

Typically the NSGEU Board of Directors sets policy between conventions, and the next convention was not scheduled for another two years.

Looking for a clear mandate, and wanting to get the message out to its membership, Jessome didn't want to wait that long.

"A lot of people only get the 7-second sound bite. This was about the real story, and hearing it from the people involved in it," she says.

"We can't win this as a president or a board of directors, it's a fight on the ground," says Jessome. "[Delegates] have to understand that there is a lot of risk for us, so that they can take it back [to the workplace], why we're going to do what we are going to do."


Corinne Gilroy was a delegate at yesterday's event. She is a library technican at Mount Saint Vincent University and is an active member of NSGEU Local 81, which represents administrative, clerical and technical support staff at the Mount.

This was Gilroy's first convention. She is struck by the high level of democracy within the union.

"The NSGEU may be unique, I don't know, but it is very much member-driven, and it is doing the work that the membership mandates."

The issues discussed at the convention are very important to her, says Gilroy, even though she is not directly touched by essential services legislation.

"I may not be directly affected as an employee, but I am certainly directly affected as a Nova Scotian and as a user of health care services," Gilroy tells the Halifax Media Co-op.

Gilroy talks about her grandmother, who just started receiving home care, and how demanding and difficult that work is.  Home support workers were the first group affected by essential services legislation.

"I want the people who provide this care, who are mostly women, to be compensated fairly. I find the way these people were treated pretty abysmal," say Gilroy.

Also, Gilroy believes there are bigger issues at play, and warns agains complacency.

"So many people think unions have outlived their use and that the social safety net is here to stay," she says.

"I think we see evidence in Nova Scotia that the opposite is the case, that our social safety net, and workers' rights that support that social safety net, can be taken away with the stroke of a pen."


In anticipation of the upcoming fight two motions of a more technical nature were also passed, asking the Board of Directors to adjust the extent to which striking workers are financially supported by workers designated as essential.

Under the new legislation far fewer workers will be allowed to walk the picket line and more workers will be deemed essential.

"With essential services legislation in place you are going to see protracted strikes, say 25 per cent of the workforce [on strike] taking all the pain, for the benefit of all. This way you can sustain such efforts," says Jessome.

The amalgamation of nine district health authorities into one is another concern for the NSGEU delegates.

At this time different unions represent different health care sectors. The NSGEU and the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union (NSNU) both represent registered nurses in different locations in the province.

Nobody knows what the future will bring. Health Minister Leo Glavine has said he favours one nurses union rather than two.

"Last week the four affected unions [Unifor, CUPE, NSGEU and NSNU] met with legal counsel, and we talked about ... how we can work together, without getting into a battle about representation," says Jessome, who prefers the status quo in terms of membership.

"We all recognize that we shouldn't fight amongst ourselves, although that's certainly what the government wants."

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert



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