Bill 1 decision charts future for Nova Scotia's health-care unions

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Photo cred: Maryland GovPics

After months of protests and legal proceedings, Arbitrator James Dorsey has rendered his decision on Nova Scotia's controversial Bill 1, the Health Authorities Act.

Dorsey was brought on to help determine how 49 bargaining units in the health-care sector would be restructured into four units during a major streamlining process. The decision rendered today, Jan. 19, strikes somewhat of a balance between the unions' proposed bargaining association model and the approach legislated by the provincial Liberal government.

The decision does not outline whether health-care workers (lab technologists, psychologists, physiotherapists and support workers etc) and support workers (maintenance and housekeeping staff) will be represented by two units or by one. These units could be formed by an amalgamation of the unions that now represent members in these distinct sectors, NSGEU, Unifor and CUPE.

Instead of reshuffling members or calling for run-off votes, Dorsey has tasked the unions with developing a collaborative bargaining structure that would allow them to continue representing their members while at the same time creating province-wide bargaining agents in both the Health Care and Support units.

"We are pleased that he is proposing this big compromise. It really is a version of what Unifor has been proposing," said Unifor's Atlantic Director, Lana Payne. "From the beginning we've been saying this. We felt that there was a way to meet the government's restructuring objectives, without tearing people out of their unions."

"We are very pleased," said Joan Jessome, president of NSGEU. "We stood to lose 9,000 members and end up representing only one group of workers. And the way the decision is written, it still requires us to sit down with the other unions and we look forward to that. But it allows us to keep our members."

Dorsey's decision strikes a compromise, lessening the blow of Bill 1's stated intent, which was to redistribute union members to create four distinct bargaining units, each to be represented by only one union. Had this model been implemented, some unions would have lost members, while others would have gained.

How the 2 remaining units - Nurses and Clerical - will be represented is still up in the air. The Nova Scotia Health Authority has interpreted Dorsey’s decision to mean that the NSNU will be the sole representative for the nurses unit. If that is the case, the NSGEU will lose 2,777 registered nurses, and stands to lose another 600 members if LPN's are also included in the Nurses Unit.

However, both the NSNU and the NSGEU say that the matter is not so cut and dry.

Jessome is hopeful that the arbitration process will open up the possibility of creating an amalgamated structure within the Nurse Unit. 

"Right now, I know that the government is saying that the NSNU has the majority [of Nurses]. We don't believe they do." said Jessome "We have the other process to negotiate the amalgamated Health Care unit. Well that option is still available with the nurses too. Hopefully we will remain representing the members we are representing today."

Whether or not LPNs will be included in the Nursing Unit or the Health Care unit is one of the most contentious issues still to be determined. The NSNU currently represents 572 LPNs while the NSGEU represents 614 LPNs, and CUPE and Unifor represent just under 500 LPN's each. If LPN's are included in the Nurse's unit, then the 1,500 unionized LPNs currently represented by the other three unions may be transferred to the NSNU.

"Basically Mr. Dorsey has said that the status of LPNs, which bargaining unit they belong to and who represents them needs further dialogue and discussion. And we look forward to being part of that too," said Payne.

The status of LPNs will be determined through arbitration between February 2-6, along with some other undetermined issues, such as the exact terms of representation for the four bargaining units.

Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People. 

Photo cred: Maryland GovPics

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