Overplaying a Winning Hand

The unhappy reality underlying the dispute over Bill 68, an act toimpose below-market wages on nurses and medical technicians, is thatNova Scotia Premier John Hamm is right: the province cannot afford a strike by 9,000 hospital workers.

It is an ironic result of hospital reform that no frills remain inthe system. A succession of governments has pared health services soclose to the bone that virtually everything left is essential. Anyconceivable work stoppage would bring unacceptable disruption tolife-giving services.

The Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre's contingency plancalled for a shutdown of all out-patient clinics. These clinics carrycritical procedures that once required hospitalization. Their transferto an out-patient setting was a sensible reform, but it hardly rendersthem less essential.

To cite but one example, a patient on blood-thinners needs regularchecks for life-threatening imbalances in anti-coagulant levels. Cutoff this service, and patients may suffer strokes and die.

As a society, we cannot live without the skilled technicians andnurses who perform such work. But they can surely live without us. Anywho are prepared to leave Nova Scotia can pick up the phone tomorrowand find better-paying work elsewhere.

Government could not afford to wait until a strike began. One of thecharming features of parliamentary democracy is its immutableinefficiency. Even a government as firmly in the majority as Dr.Hamm's, facing an opposition as enfeebled and battle-scarred asDarrell Dexter's and Wayne Gaudet's, must observe the niceties oflegislative rules.

In practice, that means it will take a week or more of undignified,all-night sessions to put in place a law prohibiting strikes.

The government could have acted without inflicting unacceptabledamage on the collective-bargaining system, worker morale, and thefuture of health care-services - indeed, without bringing unnecessarypolitical damage upon itself.

It could have acted as it did in the 1999 strike by emergency medicaltechnicians. In that case, the government banned job-action butimposed binding arbitration. The arbitrator recognized what governmentnegotiators had refused to - that ambulance attendants were grosslyunderpaid. He gave them 20 percent raises.

This time, Hamm badly overplayed what should have been a winninghand. His political and strategic misjudgement will haunt thegovernment, the health-care system, and government-employee relations,for years to come.

With Bill 68, the government chose not to risk the judgement of aneutral third party. If the 9,000 nurses and health-care workers won'tcome to terms with the government's surrogates in the regional healthboards, cabinet itself will impose a settlement.

The law is so excessive, it even forbids appeals to the courts. (No one expects this provision to withstand a constitutional challenge - eventhough the courts are unlikely to interfere with the imposedsettlements themselves).

Hamm and Health Minister Jamie Muir urge, fatuously, that bargainingcontinue. Since the government has repeatedly voiced satisfaction withthe fairness of the health boards' existing offers, no incentiveremains for the boards to bend further. They can hold fast withconfidence that the government will eventually impose similar terms.

Even the Nova Scotia Medical Society recognizes there's a steepprice to be paid for this.

Over the next few weeks, the banning of strikes and the imposition ofemployer-dictated settlements will provoke what Nova Scotia GovernmentEmployees' Union president Joan Jessome has called "creative tactics"of resistance.

When the dust settles, some workers, especially younger ones, willleave Nova Scotia forever. Most will probably stay for reasonsunconnected to the fairness of the working conditions imposed uponthem. They will live out what remains of their working lives dogged bythe corrosive conviction that those who employ them do not value theirservices.

The looming crisis occasioned by the large number of nurses expectedto retire in a decade or so will now be that much worse. At a timewhen Nova Scotia should be welcoming nurses and other skilled health-care workers, we are sending the contrary signal that this is not agood place to spend one's working life.

Industrial relations is a far more complex business than some ruralMLAs on the government benches imagine. This intricately evolvedsystem of checks and balances imposes escalating pressure on bothsides to reach settlements. For the rest of this government's term inoffice, its workings will be crippled by the expectation amonggovernment negotiators that cabinet will impose its will if unionsdo not bow before it. The result will be more workplace unrest, notless.

John Hamm began his career as a rural doctor at a time when patientsand nurses treated physicians with respect bordering on reverence.

In doctors, this sometimes had the effect of nurturing imperiousnessand obduracy in an occupation the skillful execution of which requiresattentive listening and flexibility.

Not unlike premiers, you might say.

Originally published by The Daily News in Halifax. All rights reserved by the author. Parker Barss Donham can be contacted at pdonham@fox.nstn.ca.

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