Nursing a Disaster

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To the best of my knowledge, there is no ancient Chinese proverb that warns, "Beware of what you ram through the legislature, because it will become law."

There ought to be.

Whatever ideological satisfaction Nova Scotia Tories may have taken in terminating collective bargaining for health-care workers, they will have to live with the consequences for the rest of their time in government - a term that looks shorter and shakier than it did a month ago. What's worse, Nova Scotians will live with the consequences for decades to come.

From the moment of its introduction, Bill 68 had the look of a simplistic idea whose short- and long-term ramifications had not been thought through.

Premier John Hamm claims to have understood the political fallout of taking on nurses. He says he knew the government would pay a political price.

Perhaps he expected some countervailing political benefit from appearing resolute and firm in tackling the province's financial woes. Not to mention the political hay Tories hope to harvest from a pre-election tax cut.

Passage of Bill 68 had the immediate effect of terminating a legal strike by 2,900 capital district health-care workers represented by the Nova Scotia Government Employees' Union. Instead, they and 2,100 nursing colleagues are set to resign en masse by mid-month.

Unlike a legal strike, with a negotiated protocol for maintaining emergency services, mass resignations will be more militant, more disruptive, and harder to contain than a legal strike or back-to-work legislation that sent the dispute to binding arbitration.

Did anyone in cabinet think this through, or did the government really expect underpaid workers, with skills in great demand elsewhere, to roll over and play dead for a government intent on dictating below-market wages and working conditions?

Still a legal strike

Meanwhile, 4,000 nurses represented by the Nova Scotia Nurses Union are cruising toward a July 13 deadline in what is, for the moment, still a legal strike. The government can use the club of an Bill 68 to render it illegal, but that will likely drive the less militant NSNU into NSGEU-style mass resignations.

It will also encourage recruiters from other jurisdictions, who have already begun advertising campaigns aimed at disgruntled Nova Scotia medical workers. The Canadian Press reported during the weekend that the Capital health district has 160 vacancies, and the list grows daily. Radiation therapists, medical laboratory technicians and pharmacists are also in short supply.

Even before these events, the province was heading toward a personnel crisis as a large percentage of its health-care workers approach retirement in the next decade. Bill 68 may exacerbate that situation by driving young nurses out of the province, just when we need them.

The crisis will not be limited to health care. During debate over Bill 68, Hamm and some of his cabinet ministers spoke of the need for even more wide-ranging legislation to prevent strikes in a variety of essential services.

The Trade Union Act sets out a carefully nuanced set of procedures to encourage the settlement of difficult disputes. These include a series of interventions by conciliators followed by a series of mandatory cooling off periods - all of which give the parties to the dispute a multitude of chances to back away from hard positions and avoid a strike.

This process has worked remarkably well in Nova Scotia. By short-circuiting it for the health sector, and musing publicly about short-circuiting it in other areas, the government has sabotaged the best system for avoiding strikes.

Why bargain in good faith if, at the end of the day, the government plans to impose its own terms?

That must be what more than 5,000 civil servants, without a contract since March, 2000, were thinking when they voted 93 per cent last week to reject the government's latest contract offer. Instead of bringing labour peace, Bill 68 threatens labour chaos.

Political ineptitude

Hamm and company have carried off an astonishing feat of political ineptitude: they picked a fight with an institution Nova Scotia voters love to hate - trade unions - and after a month of pitched battle, succeeded in lodging public opinion firmly on the union's side.

In part, this is due to the respect and affection Nova Scotians feel for health-care workers. In part, it's due to the workers' success in avoiding the pitfalls that often beset union militants in strike mode. There have been no shoving matches with employers, few screaming matches with politicians, and few job actions whose purpose seemed to be inconveniencing the public.

Mostly, though, it's because Bill 68 offends the voters' sense of fairness.

When workers respond by risking all in defence of their dignity, people understand and sympathize.

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