Nova Scotia Government vs Nurses: It's Just Wrong

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At the office water cooler, in letters to the editor, and in athousand coffee shops and service stations from Cape North to ShagHarbour, Nova Scotia's Hamm government is losing the fight over Bill 68.

Premier John Hamm picked the wrong tactics in the wrong fight againstthe wrong group. Too many Nova Scotians have seen the health-caresystem up close and personal to believe the women and men who staff itare greedy, unreasonable, or uncaring.

You can see it in the nervous faces of cabinet ministers trying todefend the bill's indefensible clauses. You can hear it in theconfident voices of opposition MLAs, who sense that each hour ofdebate inflicts additional, lasting damage on the government.

You could feel it in the calm demeanour of Nova Scotia Nurses' Unionpresident Heather Henderson when she devastated Premier Hamm in asidewalk confrontation Monday.

This government has had considerable success demonizing coal-minersand steelworkers. It may one day succeed in vilifying school teachersor government office-workers. But voters won't buy nurses as demons.

In its clumsiness, the government has ceded both the moral and thetactical high-ground.

Nova Scotians would have accepted back-to-work legislation that leftwages and working conditions to a neutral arbitrator. But common senseand a knowledge of how markets work suggest that if the work is thatessential, we should be prepared to pay for it fairly.

Forcing nurses and medical support-staff to work under terms dictatedby government edict - and exempting that decree from judicial review -offends the ordinary Nova Scotian's sense of fair play. It's justwrong, and everyone knows it's wrong.

The injustice resonates especially strongly with women voters, whoknow that nursing and health care are predominately femaleoccupations, and who are fed up with women's work being undervalued.

At a tactical level, by robbing health-care workers of their stake inthe collective bargaining process, the government has left itselfdefenceless against job actions that fall short of an outright strike.

A mass refusal of overtime, combined with a refusal to work throughscheduled breaks and strict adherence to job descriptions, will bringchaos every bit as devastating as a strike might have caused.

As statements by capital district health authority president BobSmith make clear, the single step of refusing to work overtime has thepotential to bring the health-care system crashing to the ground.

"A sustained ban on overtime," said Smith, "would ramp up veryquickly to a concern for public safety."

So Smith and his managers are forced to gear down to a bare-bonesoperation. Watch for more stories like the one about the Porter's Lakewoman whose breast-cancer surgery has been indefinitely postponed.Don't try telling her the surgery was "elective."

Only two questions remain: Can John Hamm, a man of toweringstubbornness, be forced to back down? And will the unions, withvictory in their grasp, blow it by overplaying their hand as thegovernment overplayed its?

Some saw the premier's 3 a.m. offer to withdraw the bill if all threehospital bargaining units reached voluntary agreements as a sign offlexibility. It's more likely a sign of a sleep-deprived politicianunwittingly allowing himself to be drawn into a hypotheticaldiscussion.

Still, the premier needs a face-saving route out of the mess hecreated. A request by one or more district-health-authority CEOs formore time to work out a solution could kick-start seriousnegotiations.

The premier's concern for the province's fiscal well-being cannot bedismissed out of hand. Perhaps he could ask Nova Scotians whether theyare willing to forego the Tories' promised two per cent tax cut nextyear in return for a health care-system whose essential workers arefairly compensated.

Although the unions have the upper hand, they could lose it quicklyif any of their resistance tactics goes awry. Let angry workers roughup a cabinet minister, or a mob of demonstrators interfere with theworkings of the legislature, and public opinion could turn againstthem as quickly as it has turned against the government.

Neither the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees' Union (NSGEU) nor the Nurses' Union has strong leaders. Three times in the last few weeks, the executives of these unions have presented members with tentative agreements, only to see themdecisively rejected.

In the next few days, the union leaders must walk a tightrope. Theirability to contain their members' rage and channel it into tacticsthat keep pressure on the government will be decisive.

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