A week ago, Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm's inept manoeuvrings threatened to derail an inquiry into industrial relations in Nova Scotia's health-care industry. This week, labour-union intransigence threatens to do the job.Both sides agreed to an inquiry as part of the signed agreement that ended the impasse over Bill 68. That deal stilled the crisis but did little to relieve the anger and mistrust the government's actions had inspired.Hamm appointed Milton Veniot, an experienced industrial-relations arbitrator, to carry out the inquiry. Veniot is well respected by labour, and was even on their list of candidates to conduct the either-or arbitration that resolved the contract dispute underlying Bill 68.But the unions were annoyed at Hamm for failing to consult them on the choice, and for rebuffing their requests for a three-person inquiry with one labour rep.Annoyance turned to fury when Hamm insisted the inquiry report back next month, and when cabinet began discussing legislation to outlaw strikes in health care and other public services. The wisdom of such legislation was properly part of Veniot's mandate. By starting work on it, Hamm made the inquiry look like an empty diversion.No sensible observer could blame the unions from backing out of the process, which they did, in a united front.Last week, Hamm backed off the untenable turf he had staked out. He denied the government had begun drafting a law to ban strikes, and promised to wait for the inquiry, which would not have to report this fall."I'm looking for ... a way that unions can feel comfortable participating in the process," he said."There is no way you can draft anything until the commission reports," he said. "Any suggestion that there has been any attempt to draft legislation before today is completely erroneous."Still, Hamm's legislative intent appeared unchanged."It's the position of the government, and I believe it's the position of the vast majority of public-sector employees, that they would like to have a process that does not involve a strike. But it has to be a fair process," Hamm added.The Premier is scarcely alone in disliking strikes, but he seems incapable of understanding that workers who cannot legally withdraw their services are powerless at the bargaining table."When you're sitting across the table from an employer that has the power to impose legislation, has the power to close the purse, has the power to say no, all you have is the power to withdraw your services," said Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union. "They have all the cards on their side, and they are trying to take away the last strength that we have."So the unions are still refusing to co-operate with the inquiry.I believe this is a tactical mistake. If they persist in boycotting the inquiry, despite the Premier's concessions, the unions risk losing the public support that was so critical in forcing the government to back down on Bill 68. The Premier will call them intransigent and go ahead and pass strike-banning legislation without an inquiry.The average Nova Scotian has no deeper appreciation than Hamm of the delicate balancing act required for successful collective bargaining. This summer, affection for nurses and other health-care workers overcame the public's tendency to suspect unions of truculence. Such support won't survive untended.What's the alternative?Veniot is no fool. He's been solving industrial disputes for years. Unlike Hamm and his cabinet, he understands that disarming unions is more likely to create chaos than smooth conclusion of collective agreements the government likes.After a full exposition of these issues at an inquiry, he is unlikely to recommend any sweeping ban on strikes in health care, let alone other government services.If the unions co-operate with his inquiry, and he recommends a different course than the one Hamm is charging down, it will be very hard for the government to proceed with the kind of legislation Hamm is contemplating.If Hamm introduces strike-banning legislation despite a contrary recommendation from Veniot, the unions will be in a much stronger position. They will have co-operated with the inquiry. The Premier will be defying it.If, as Jessome and the other union leaders believe, the Premier is hell-bent on stripping their right to strike, then participating in the Veniot inquiry is their best shot at stopping him.
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