Health care right to strike (Sept 20, 2007)

Health care strikes not the issue

It is intriguing to watch politically tin-eared, ideologically wrong-headed Rodney — the premier who couldn’t make up his many minds on Sunday shopping until it was too late for him to claim anything but blame — now relentlessly clutching between his teeth the chewed, spit-up bone of legislation to outlaw strikes by health care workers, even after the Opposition parties had well and truly cremated the cadaver.

“The issue,” the premier bravely insisted to reporters last week after both opposition parties announced they wouldn’t support his minority government’s anti-strike legislation, “is long from over.”

The real question is how did it get started in the first place.

Back in May, less than two weeks after a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, 15-hour strike by 600 workers at the IWK Health Centre resulted in the cancellation of 59 surgeries, the discharge of 30 youths with mental illnesses and the rescheduling of 474 appointments, MacDonald called a press conference to dramatically declare that “our current system of resolving impasses has failed all of us… Moreover, I believe it is destined to fail again.”

Therefore, he said, his government had no choice but to introduce legislation to create a new “dispute resolution system” for health care workers in order to “protect the health and safety of Nova Scotians” from all those greedy, villainous, care-only-for-themselves nurses, technologists, therapists and other front-line health care workers who have hijacked our health care system with all their many and various outrageous demands and strikes and walkouts and…

Uhh… Wait a minute.

The actual, long-term consequences of the IWK strike, while certainly unfortunate, were probably not much worse than a typical winter storm. And, while no one likes to see such disruptions, especially at a hospital dedicated to the care of children and women, the reality is that there haven’t been a lot of labour stoppages in our health care system.

According to union statistics, in fact, there have been just three health care workers’ strikes in the past 25 years. The government has puffed up that number to 100 “separate work stoppages,” apparently by totaling up the number of institutions affected by each strike. But however the government wants to fiddle the numbers, the reality is that most Nova Scotians — for very good reasons — don’t see strikes by health care workers as a matter of major import.

That’s because there are lots of other real health care issues for them to worry about.

The shortage of doctors and nurses willing to practise in rural Nova Scotia, for example. The continuing closures of emergency rooms all over this province. The too-long wait times to see some specialists…

And yet this government chooses to train all its legislative and political resources on what is essentially a non-issue.

The government has done its best to spin the story dizzy. Labour Minister Mark Parent, for example, has tried to claim he has only the health care workers’ best interests in mind. “I believe the truth is that health-care workers are focused on helping others,” he wrote in a paternalistic op-ed piece last week, “and don’t want the stressful internal conflict that comes with the prospect of a strike.” But the reality is that 94 per cent of those dedicated, stressed-out health care workers at the IWK felt they had no choice but to vote in favour of strike action last spring. Not because they wanted to strike. But because they wanted what they considered a fair settlement.

MacDonald himself still seems to believe he can still score political points with legislation he now knows could force an election. “Regardless of what has been said the last couple of days,” he told reporters last week, “I believe that the people of Nova Scotia want the government to move forward with this legislation and I hope that both of the opposition parties, once they see the legislation, will be supportive.”

Ironically, even as he tried to make the case against strikes, however, he helped make a more compelling one against his own government’s many health care failures.

“The question I’m going to ask him,” MacDonald said of Liberal leader Stephen McNeil’s decision not to support the legislation, “is how many appointments is it OK to cancel? One thousand? Five hundred? How many minutes is it OK for someone to wait in an emergency situation?…”

Good question, Mr. Premier. Perhaps you’d like to answer that question in Digby where the lights go out in the emergency room on a regular basis — not because of any labour dispute but because there aren’t enough doctors to staff the place.

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.

  1. Good point. Police officers, firemen, and our armed forces should all have the right to strike and unionize. When you get down to it, why are we differentiating between a search and rescue technician saving a drowning fisherman and a nurse monitoring someone in intensive care? Let them all have the right!


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