Health care unions: arbitrator’s report unlikely to be the end of the story

By this time next week, government-appointed mediator-arbitrator Jim Dorsey is expected to hand down his final report into which health care worker should be represented by which health care union.

His choices seem limited. The Health Authorities Act — which the McNeil government introduced last fall as part of its promise to merge nine district health authorities into one — not only mandates there be just four bargaining units for the entire system but also insists each bargaining unit be represented by one union and, further, that no union can represent more than one unit.

You couldn’t have written better legislation from the government’s point of view. Of course it did write it.

There is a logical, and politically popular case to be made for streamlining the administration of the health care system and the bargaining process.

But the legislation is also precisely, politically targeted to emasculate the province’s nemesis, the Nova Scotia Government Employees’ Union.

The NSGEU currently represents close to half the province’s 24,000 health care workers, including 2,500 registered nurses and 660 licenced practical nurses (who will end up in one bargaining unit), and the majority of unionized workers in public health, addiction and care coordination (another bargaining unit).

The new law — and the arbitrator’s carefully constrained mandate — will likely force nurses and LPNs into the government’s union of choice: the Nova Scotia Nurses Union, leaving the NSGEU with fewer, lower-paid members. That will not only effectively decimate the NSGEU financially, but also weaken its bargaining power for its remaining public sector workers.

That too may be politically popular, but it appears to be a slap in the face to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ freedom of association provision, not to mention a dogs’ breakfast of international labour laws and treaties to which Canada is a signatory.

Several legal experts — including Charter expert Wayne MacKay and international law scholar Patrick Macklem — made exactly those points in presentations to the arbitrator last month.

Will he listen? Can he? We shall see.

What is clear is that, whatever his decision, it will not be the end of the story. The validity of this law will almost certainly ultimately be decided by the courts.

At great financial and social cost.

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