Stephen Kimber

The missing essentials in McNeil’s essential services legislation

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The battle is over. It ended shortly after seven Friday morning when a marathon legislature session culminated with passage of the reassuringly entitled Essential Health and Community Services Act, forcing 2,400 Capital Health District nurses back to their stations.

With its passage, the larger war for the future of labour relations in this province was joined.

The new law blanket-covers close to 40,000 health and community services workers, including nurse-members of both the NSGEU and the NSNU, other hospital employees, those who work in homes for seniors, youth and people with disabilities, paramedics, even 9-1-1 operators.

The legislation requires employers and unions to agree on what services are essential before any job action begins. Unions or employers face fines of $100,000 for the first day’s violation, $10,000 for subsequent days. Individuals could be penalized $1,000 on day one and $200 each day after.

While Liberal premier Stephen McNeil claims his legislation strikes the right balance between safeguarding patient services and preserving the employees right to strike, Satan, as always, lurks in the details.

Which services are essential? Based on similar laws in other jurisdictions, Capital Health CEO Chris Power estimates 70 to 80 per cent of Capital Health nurses will be deemed so essential they can’t strike. Without a realistic option to withdraw their services, what leverage will nurses have?

Perhaps there is a legitimate argument health care workers— like police and fire services providers — are too vital to allow to strike. The former NDP government certainly thought so when it passed emergency legislation back in 2013 to prevent a strike by paramedics. The key difference was that that legislation provided for binding final-offer arbitration to determine an eventual contract.

That’s the flaw in the Liberal law: there’s no mechanism to achieve a collective agreement. The employer —ultimately the government — holds all the cards. Perhaps that’s the government’s real goal.

But even if the law offered a reasonable route to a contract, there is a still larger issue this legislation doesn’t even mention.

Nurses voted, protested, even briefly wildcat-struck, not for higher wages but for what they see as “patient safety.”

When — and how — do we have that discussion?

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Copyright 2014 Stephen Kimber

If collective bargaining isn’t the right time to discuss larger issues, what is, Stephen McNeil?

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No one seemed to know why. Neither side had made a new offer, each side insisted with equal insistence. Nor had there been any concessions or Saul-like conversions on the path to the picket line anyone knew about.

Despite that, the conciliator had called, so they were heeding the call.

Negotiators for Capital Health and Local 97 of the NSGEU are scheduled to begin bargaining again at 8:45 this morning in what seems like a desultory attempt to head off Thursday’s expected nurses’ strike — or claim they’d made the attempt.

One hopes that somewhere between the silences, the Tim’s and the stale muffins from the previous weekend’s fruitless, non-negotiations, the two sides will finally discuss the obvious sticky point.

The nurses want Capital Health to implement, over time, mandatory nurse-patient ratios… and that’s non-negotiable. Capital Health says they don’t work… talk to the hand.

Who can say who’s right?

Kim Campbell, our-once-and-never-again prime minister may have been correct when she said — excuse the paraphrase — “collective bargaining is no place to discuss serious issues.” But, from the union’s perspective, what’s the alternative?

They claim there are too few nurses, and those nurses are over-worked and over-stressed. That leads, inevitably, to poorer patient care.

Our new government’s faux fix for what ails our health care system — combining relatively efficient regional health boards into a more bureaucratic, likely less efficient central one — doesn’t ask the right questions, let alone offer answers.

Our biggest single health care cost driver is doctors’ fees. Physicians are currently developing strategy for upcoming negotiations with the province over the so-called Master Agreement, and they have already said they want significantly increased compensation.

Although our doctors are among the lowest paid in the country — if you call an average of $250,000 per year low — we also have more doctors per capita than any other province. Do we need that many? Should more of what they do be done by less costly nurses? More of what nurses do be done by LPNs? In community-based collaborative health care centres?

It’s past time for Stephen McNeil to assume leadership here. Instead of bullying nurses for raising important questions, he should start asking some of those questions himself.

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Copyright 2014 Stephen Kimber

Should our right to adequate care disappear with nurses’ right to strike?

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Let me see if I understand this.

Capital District nurses have the legal right to strike. In February, they voted 90 per cent in favour of striking to back contract demands. But if they actually walk off their jobs, they will effectively — and almost instantly — lose that right. (See the McNeil government’s legislation forcing striking home-care workers to return to their posts even before the ink on their picket signs was dry. McNeil will do the same if nurses down their stethoscopes.)

So what are their options?

The nurses could quit.

Oh… no, they can’t.

After nurses voted overwhelming last week to resign en masse if ordered back to work, the health authority threatened to “take whatever legal action it feels appropriate to counteract such dangerous, unlawful behaviour.”

Though the government feigns hands-off because the two sides are still theoretically negotiating, the premier himself weighed in, insisting resignations not be a “tool in collective bargaining… I find it hard to believe that they would walk away and leave vulnerable Nova Scotians at risk.”

But that, of course, is exactly the issue.

The union wants mandated nurse-patient ratios because they say nurses are overworked and overstressed, a situation that compromises patient safety.

Capital Health — under government-mandated stress to cut costs — insists mandated ratios aren’t a solution.

Both sides trot out contradictory reports from jurisdictions where ratios have been implemented — Australia, California — to buttress their arguments.

While that makes it hard for the rest of us to see the solutions for the statistics, what isn’t in question is there is a problem.

According to one report, Canada’s nurses are nearly twice as likely to be absent due to illness or injury than the average worker. Twenty percent of hospital nurses quit each year, with workload a key factor. U.S. studies have documented an “irrefutable association” between staffing levels and what are delicately referred to as “patient outcomes.”

McNeil may legislate away health care workers’ right to strike, but we shouldn’t let him sweep away this important issue with it.

The premier should appoint a task force — with adequate nurse representation — to examine the overall relationship between staffing and patient health. Its report should be public, completed quickly and its recommendations implemented.

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Copyright 2014 Stephen Kimber

If home support workers are so essential, shouldn’t we pay them better?

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Whose services are really “essential”? And what does that mean?

On Friday, the McNeil government recalled the legislature to designate most home support workers — including the 400 Northwood employees who began a legal strike Friday, the 670 VON workers who could walk off their jobs this week and even the hundreds of others still at work and still supposedly involved in “free” collective bargaining — so essential they cannot be allowed to exercise their legal right to strike.

According to the legislation, home support employees who “assist persons with activities of daily living, which may include personal care, respite services, light housekeeping, meal preparation and laundry services” are all absolutely essential. And so too are those whose absence might simply result in “deterioration of property required for the performance of an essential home-support service.”

If those workers are so essential, we need to ask ourselves why they earn — even if they accept the government’s last “generous,” accept-this-or-we’ll-offer-you-even-less contract — far less than half what an MLA makes? Are MLAs really twice as essential?

If we can’t do without home support workers, why won’t we compensate them on a par with, say, nurses? Or police and fire services? Shouldn’t they — at a minimum — earn as much as those who do similar work inside hospitals? And be compensated for the hours they spend each day “on call”?

If Nova Scotia’s home support workers are so vital to our collective well being, why have they been working without a contract for close to two years?

And why won’t the government allow its dispute with them go to arbitration, the normal way to resolve labour disputes without strikes?

It seems Stephen McNeil’s government’s broader agenda is to eliminate the right to strike for all employees in the health care sector, and home support workers — a generally older group that includes mainly women — are simply the first, easiest target.

If there’s an argument for eliminating health care workers’ right to strike, losing that right should then become a factor in determining their compensation.

But this legislation isn’t about essential services — or fairness. It’s about government trying to solve larger economic problems on the backs of already low paid workers.

It’s the wrong way to do it.

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Copyright 2014 Stephen Kimber

Paramedics can’t strike, but that doesn’t cure what ails a sick system

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Now that the government has legislatively punted the possibility of a paramedics strike into the hands of a pick-one arbitrator — who will have to choose between dueling union and management last-best offers for wages and working conditions over the next three to five years — it’s time to ask ourselves a question.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Depending on who you believe — the government, the Liberal opposition, or the union respectively — Nova Scotia lost 26, 40 or 90 of its 750 paramedics in the past year or so to greener pastures, higher wages and better working conditions in other parts of Canada. Experienced paramedics in Alberta can earn $20–30,000 more a year than in Nova Scotia.

Even Health Minister David Wilson — a former paramedic whose government legislated the end to this strike-before-it-was-a- strike — acknowledges retaining paramedics can be “a real challenge.”

Worse, many of those leaving are those most in demand — highly-trained advanced care paramedics who can administer the kind of life-saving medications at emergencies that mean the difference between… well, life and death.

Wages aren’t the only negotiating glue pot. Union leader Terry Chapman claims paramedics who call in sick aren’t replaced on their shifts, adding stress to already overworked first responders. And there is currently no easy transition for older paramedics from the pressures of the ambulance to useful work in collaborative care units or emergency rooms.

“Morale,” Chapman says, “is at an all-time low.”

Apparently.

The union’s last contract expired in March 2011. Since then, paramedics have soundly rejected three offers, including two recommended by their union leadership. They rejected the most recent deal — which included a government-mandated defined-benefit pension sweetener — by an overwhelming 73 per cent.

The two sides are still far apart. Management’s last offer on the table called for an 11.1 per cent wage increase spread over nearly five years. The union’s final demand was a 15 per cent raise over three years.

Since the arbitrator must choose only one proposal, both sides must frantically sharpen their pencils over the next few weeks.

No matter.

The only certainty seems to be that whatever decision the arbitrator makes will not drain the poison from this bargaining well.

That should concern us all.

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Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber

Jamie Baillie offside… as usual

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Forget the Byzantine balls-up the attempt to unionize Canada’s junior hockey players became—league-hired private investigators snooping on union staff, falsely (maybe) intimating one was a felon; union (dis)organizers scheduling, then canceling votes—and ask ourselves two simple questions: First, do run-of-the-litter junior hockey players, the ones least likely to lose millions in the next NHL lockout, have legitimate grievances? And, second, what the hell was Jamie Baillie thinking?

Working conditions in major junior hockey have undoubtedly improved in the last 20 years. Team owners pay more than lip service to ensuring their school-aged players actually attend school. Some, like the Halifax Mooseheads, provide tutors who travel with the team. The Mooseheads organization itself has a deserved reputation for treating its teenaged charges—and their families—very well.

That said, playing major junior hockey is a far-more-than-part-time burger-flipping after school job. Living away from family and friends at 16, year-round training, practices, games, road trips, promotional appearances, charity involvements… not to forget the possibility of being cut, traded, or suffering a career-ending, life-affecting injury. All while going to school, growing up and, for most, coming to terms with the end of their NHL dreams.

For that, players are paid anywhere from $35 to $120 a week, depending on age. While Mooseheads owner Bobby Smith is correct to argue that doesn’t begin to cover the team’s investment in its players—providing billet families, trainers, even psychologists—the reality is players haven’t had a raise in years. And most CHL teams make a lot of money from the fruits of their teenagers’ labours.

The most egregious inequity involves the league’s education package. While it ostensibly offers players a year of post-secondary education for every year they play, there are so many caveats and loopholes very few take full advantage.

Which brings us to Jamie Baillie. When the Tory leader heard about the union drive, his first response was not to ask whether the teenagers had a legitimate grievance but to fret team owners would have to increase ticket prices to maintain their profits. And then to Chicken-Little suggest—falsely—this national organizing drive was the result of the provincial government’s first-contract legislation last year.

Jamie, Jamie, Jamie...

Two minutes in the penalty box for playing politics and a game misconduct for caring more about team profits than teenagers.

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Copyright 2012 Stephen Kimber

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