Health care right to strike (Oct 18, 2007)

Parent’s disappointment is disingenuous

So poor, put-upon Labour Minister Mark Parent is “disappointed” in Nova Scotia’s health care union leaders for refusing to meet with him face-to-face, man-to-man, cabinet-minister-to-lowly peon so he could lay before their wondering eyes the glorious, gory details of exactly how his government intends to take away their members’ right to strike.

By the minister’s own reckoning, Monday’s non-meeting with union leaders marked the sixth different non-occasion since June 18 to which he’s generously invited union leaders to come on down and converse over canapés on whether they would prefer to be hanged, drawn and quartered, or simply put out of their misery with a sudden, heart-stopping burst of electrical current. It was also, the minister allowed more in sorrow than anger, the sixth separate time the unions had ungraciously, unaccountably said no thanks.

Which is why Mark Parent, like the parent of a too-puzzling-for-words teenager, is just s-o-o-o disappointed. “When you sit down together and talk, some interesting things can happen,” he lamented. All he ever wanted, he added — cue the violins — was for the unions “to consult with me [on how] to make the collective bargaining process work better, and that’s really what we’re offering.”

Uh, not really.

If that’s actually what Parent and the MacDonald government had in mind in the aftermath of last April’s 16-hour mini-strike at the IWK Health Centre, all they had to do was open a public dialogue, not only with the unions and the representatives of the province’s health care employers but also with the rest of us.

If the government had framed the question as — let’s say, for the sake of argument — “Is there a better way to deal with labour disputes in the critical health care sector?” then the unions might very well have been keen and active participants in that discussion. And, out of that discussion, what the minister calls “interesting things” might actually have happened.

Because the discussion then would have actually been a discussion.

Instead, the government began with a narrow and non-negotiable premise: We are eliminating your right to strike; how do you think the dirty deed should best be accomplished?

Despite the many and very real crises the province’s health care system faces — too long wait times for all manner of tests and procedures, shuttered emergency rooms, lack of family physicians in rural communities, spiraling out of control costs — the government has done its level best to make the non-issue of health care workers’ right to strike the sole centerpiece of its fall legislative agenda.

Why?

Not because of Premier Rodney MacDonald’s much ballyhooed “concern for patient health and safety,” or because labour disruptions in health care are such a pressing issue for Nova Scotians — the IWK strike was the first since 1981, and it lasted less than a day — but because this government sees attacking health care workers’ right to strike as a potential vote-getting diversion from its own many and well documented failures to come to grips with the real health care problems we face.

Will it work?

It will if Rodney MacDonald’s government can frame the question as narrowly as a recent Bristol Omnifacts Research poll for the Daily News, which essentially asked respondents if they thought strikes are the best way to deal with labour disputes in the health care sector: “Using a scale of 1 to 10,” the pollsters asked, “how acceptable do you consider [strikes] as a means of resolving labour disputes in health care?”

Duh?

Ask a dumb question; you get the answer you were looking for.

The MacDonald government’s hail-Mary hope of winning the next election is now based on making Nova Scotians believe that that is the question, and the only health care question worth asking. If they can engineer their own defeat by pressing ahead with legislation the opposition parties have promised to vote against and then successfully cast their opponents as pro-strike, anti-health care, they might just be able to pull it off.

But I’m guessing Nova Scotians are smarter than that.

Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. His column, Kimber’s Nova Scotia, appears in The Sunday Daily News.

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Copyright 2007 Stephen Kimber, Website

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