Representatives for 7,500 health-care workers in Nova Scotia are making a direct appeal to the premier to help them get a new contract, and threatening a strike if a deal cannot be reached.
In a letter to Premier Iain Rankin on Thursday, the presidents of CUPE, Unifor and the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, which comprise the council of healthcare unions, asked Rankin to commit to allow any issues not resolved during conciliation between June 28 and 30 to go to arbitration.
The group includes all non-nursing health-care workers represented by the NSGEU, CUPE and Unifor, such as lab techs, physiotherapists, social workers and mental health clinicians.
"Following seven years of wage austerity, wages for Nova Scotia health care workers have fallen below where they should in comparison to other provinces," reads a portion of the letter.
"The health care workers represented by the council of unions are simply looking to be fairly compensated and as things presently stand these workers are headed towards an impasse with their employers which could ultimately lead to a province wide strike."
Unions accuse employers of foot dragging
NSGEU president Jason MacLean said the unions are taking this step because of difficulties getting representatives for Nova Scotia Health and the IWK Health Centre to come to the table.
After one meeting in the spring, seven dates in April and May were cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. MacLean said they were unable to get the employer to commit to other dates, which is why they filed for conciliation on May 10.
"The employer has been avoiding us at every step," he said.
"And I just find it very problematic when you have a group of workers that have been just laying it out and [the employer] will not discuss what the provisions are going to be in their collective agreement."
But Steve Ashton, a vice-president with the IWK, said that's not the case.
Focus had to be on COVID
Ashton said the employers asked for the pause as they prepared to deal with the full force of the pandemic's third wave, the most severe to hit Nova Scotia. Two weeks later, the unions filed for conciliation.
"The question was raised: could we have met earlier than that and, to be honest, we were deeply involved in the COVID response to wave three," he said.
"We were disappointed that it had to be done through conciliation, but certainly at no time did we intend not to get back to the table. We were pretty clear that we wanted to get back when we could."
Ashton also disputed a suggestion by MacLean that the employers are purposely dragging their feet on negotiations so they don't coincide with a provincial election if one is called this summer.
"I don't know if anyone can predict when a provincial election is going to happen," he said.
"No, we're not trying to play any games with the dates. We were sincerely trying to get through this wave of COVID, which I think we very successfully have because of the focused dedication of our people."
MacLean said a lot of work can be achieved during conciliation, but he said the unions' concern is that if there's no pressure applied going into those talks, there is no motivation for the other side to actively participate.
"Based on [those dates] and based on the premier's response to this will show us the way that we have to go," he said.
"I want to avoid [calling a strike vote] at every effort and my main effort is just to flat out ask the premier to go to arbitration and let's forgo anything that we can't get agreements on."
Rankin told CBC it's his understanding the employer is willing to bargain and will continue to do so and "represent the public interest and ensure that we are looking fairly at what's being proposed."
The premier said he supports the collective bargaining process, including the role arbitration can play in it.
"If there is a breakdown, there is that right," he said.
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