The perils and prospects of Nova Scotia's anti-labour health bill

The uproar is about a bill to merge nine regional health authorities into one and streamline their union structure, but it's bigger than that, reaching into the core of our Nova Scotian malaise.

A peaceful end to this would keep the road clear as this province struggles to move forward on many fronts, and a bad one would thicken the dark clouds of backbiting and cynicism that hovers overhead generally, not to mention imperil the better functioning of the health-care system the bill envisions.

What is a good outcome, how can it be reached, and is there still time? Can two scorpions in a bottle find harmony?

The health bill is the first act of the drama that involves upcoming negotiations on major public service contracts. The background to the piece is that, here as mostly elsewhere, public sector wages and pensions are outstripping both private sector wages and benefits and the society's capacity to pay. Health bill or not, a shakeout was coming.

The bill wants some 50 bargaining units reduced to four in the health system. The good news is that the unions appear to accept this -- no small thing -- and the need to streamline the bargaining process. The less good news is that government can't seem to find the flexibility or the time to let that happen more or less naturally, by letting the unions shake it out themselves by either a vote or otherwise.

But if government has a shaky grip on the whole thing, if the health minister is flip-flopping and ducking, that's also understandable -- they're just being true to a tradition that has afflicted all three parties over the past 30 years.

The relationship over time was that the unions were always up for the fight, being professionals at it, and governments never were, being mostly perpetual newcomers trying to figure out what's going on.

Although always insecure about their acquired rights, and using the language of starving coal miners even when gaining salaries and pensions the average Nova Scotian could only dream of, the unions' code required them to go for more, no matter what, even if bargaining sometimes looked more like blackmailing the public -- as with the threat to shut down hospitals -- and governments mostly caved.

Government's only perceived option, whenever things threatened to get out of control, was to pass back-to-work legislation in a state of flatfooted panic, usually with angry demonstrators outside the legislature. In the present case, I suspect, government's reluctance to engage with the unions is the fear that if they start talking to the unions, notably the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, the latter will simply outmanoeuvre them.

When the NDP came to power and the NSGEU quietly accepted a one per cent increase for the first couple of years, I entertained the illusion that the unions had a subtle understanding with their natural political ally to restrain their demands and not make budgetary trouble.

However, as former finance minister Graham Steele explains in his tell-all insider's book on his time in government, What I Learned About Politics, the restraint just pushed back demands "like a coiled spring."

When catch-up time came in 2012, the demand was for an untenable 5.1 per cent plus inflation over three years. Speaking no doubt for all governments over the past three decades, Steele observes "we seemed curiously unable to match them strategically. We were dancing with people who knew all the moves, and we seemed compelled to follow their lead."

The government caved in, over Steele's objections, and he resigned. The fact that he only revealed the reason for his resignation now, in his book, blunted its impact.

But the resignation of a finance minister underlines the seriousness of the matter.

What can go wrong here -- illegal strikes, unhappy health workers -- could compromise a quick, clean merger of the health authorities (already an iffy proposition) which is needed so the issue of actual health-care delivery can be addressed. It could also envenom upcoming negotiations, not to mention inflict one of those early-mandate wounds (like the expenses scandal that stuck to former premier Darrell Dexter) that hobbles governments to the end.

The bill appoints a mediator to rejig the bargaining units, who will morph into an arbitrator who can impose a settlement if none is achieved in 45 days.

Speaking from out here in the back country, where people aren't impressed by either side in this issue, I'd say that what the Nova Scotia public -- remember that thing? -- wants is for both sides to put water in their wine and get on with it.

Now that would be progress.

Ralph Surette is a freelance journalist in Yarmouth County. This column was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: Tom Flemming/flickr

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