The missing essentials in Stephen McNeil’s essential services legislation

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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