The Nova Scotia Council of Health Care Unions is proceeding with the first ever province-wide Health Care Bargaining Unit strike vote to oppose the wrecking of health care by the anti-social offensive of the McNeil government and defend the rights of the health care workers. Workers’ Forum talked to Jason MacLean, President of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), about how this work is going. The Nova Scotia Council of Health Care Unions is made up of the NSGEU, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Unifor, and the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union.
Workers’ Forum: NSGEU, as part of the Nova Scotia Council of Health Care Unions, has begun the process of holding membership meetings across Nova Scotia in preparation for a strike vote in the current round of negotiations with the provincial government and the health care authorities. Can you tell us more about it?
Jason MacLean: We mapped out the rest of April to reach out to our members. I feel it is very important to have a face-to-face with the membership. It has been four years that they have been without a contract. We want a strike vote but it has to be an informed vote and the members have to be confident that they are making the right decision.
At the beginning of April, we had two telephone Town Hall meetings. They were very well received, very positive, and what I got from my members is that “Okay, now is the time to go down this road.” What they are trying to do is protect what they already have. This is not even speaking to any type of gains. This is about protecting the collective agreement because the employer sees this as an opportunity to tear up provisions that they have in their agreements.
Every night except for one over the next two weeks I will be meeting my members face to face to discuss the state of health care, to discuss the state of bargaining and ask for a strike vote. This is going to go right up until April 24. This is something that I take very seriously. What we are going to do is open up the strike vote on April 23, we are going to do an electronic vote. People are going to be able to vote from April 23 to 30 and we are going to have the results by April 30.
As far as NSGEU is concerned, this makes 15 meetings. Meanwhile, CUPE, Unifor and the Nova Scotia Nurses Union are doing the same. There are 6,500 health care workers that are involved in this process.
WF: In a press release, NSGEU stated that the negotiations are not going well. Can you explain?
JM: We were hoping that things would change for the better but they regressed. I can give you one example. The employers tabled a new proposal around mobility that would allow them to transfer employees around the province to where they think they are needed. If they feel that they need a worker in an area, they want to be able to tell a worker that may live in a totally different area that they are going to move him or her for a certain amount of time to that location. There are a lot of things that are wrong with that situation. That could break up families. That could cause undue stress on the worker. What they need to do is hire enough people to do the work in all areas. They have cut back on jobs in certain areas, or did not fill jobs. What they need to do is fill those jobs. We, the unions, as a Council, do not agree with that proposal. That is something that is a true sticking point. We talk about work-life balance. What kind of work-life balance are you going to have, or work balance for that matter, when you are bounced all over the province? That is a non-starter.
Another issue in these negotiations is Bill 148, which freezes the wages of all public sector workers of the province for the first two years of a new contract and provides minimal increases in the third and fourth year (zero per cent in year one, zero per cent in year two, one per cent in the third year, and 1.5 per cent in the fourth year, with an additional 0.5 per cent on the last day of the fourth year). The bill also froze the retirement allowance for all public sector employees effective April 1, 2015. All this applies to the health care workers that are currently into bargaining. We are already moving backwards going into bargaining and the employer wants to try and exploit other pieces.
WF: NSGEU speaks about a crisis of the health care system in Nova Scotia.
JM: Yes. People do not have family doctors. They show up to the Emergency Department sicker than before. Hospitals are short-staffed so there is a huge backlog of families who need care sitting in emergency departments. They are even sitting in parking lots waiting to be seen. In some instances, they are waiting up to an hour and a half just to be triaged. A lot of times they are being sent home. Also that becomes further complicated because 20 per cent of people that are in hospital beds really need to be in long-term care. Premier Stephen McNeil has not built one long-term care bed in his 10 years in office. We have sick people that are left in hallways because there is no place to put them. People are leaving the Emergency Department to call 911 because they are so desperate to get the care they need. We have over 100,000 Nova Scotians without a family doctor. Emergency room closures have increased under the McNeil government by 50 per cent. The surgical wait times are the worst in Canada. Our health care workers are among the lowest paid in the country. That is a retention issue because people are leaving the province to go work elsewhere. The government denies that there is a crisis. Our health care workers are telling us that this is the worst they have seen in 20 years but the McNeil government continues to deny this crisis. If that is not a crisis I do not know what is.
And in all this, while the health care system in Nova Scotia is in crisis, we have our members who are without a contract for four years and had legislation imposed on them, but they are still keeping the health care system together. I commend them on their commitment and professionalism. The government is showing them no respect but they are still keeping the system going.
WF: Would you like to say something in conclusion?
JM: We want the members to give us a strike vote because we want to put pressure at the bargaining table. I am also meeting the members face-to-face to commend them on the hard work that they have done to keep things together. They have done a great job and I want to let them know that NSGEU, their union, will continue to represent them to the fullest, standing strongly by their side.
1. For more information, see “Strike Vote Announced by Nova Scotia Council of Health Care Unions,” Workers’ Forum, April 5, 2018.
Source: Workers’ Forum, April 12, 2018