Unhealthy Deal for Nova Scotia Health Care

Arbitrator Susan Ashley has resolved the collective disagreements underlying the health-care crisis of early summer with a crude saw-off that satisfies no one, least of all the arbitrator herself.An unsatisfactory outcome was inevitable given the blunt instrument Ashley was given to hammer out an agreement. Denied authority to find sensible middle ground between the parties, she had to pick the less unreasonable of the two positions. As she put it, quoting an Ontario arbitrator, her task was "to find against the party that advocates the least reasonable offer."She found against the government in one case involving 5,900 nurses, and against the employees in two cases involving a total of 3,700 licensed practical nurses (LPNs), lab and x-ray technologists, psychologists, physiotherapists, and other health-care workers. Only wages were at stake. The two sides settled non-monetary issues through negotiations as the final offer selection process was getting underway.Registered nurses win raises that will total 18 per cent compounded over three years. Since their contract expired almost a year ago, they will get retroactive payments averaging about $5,000 with overtime and other premiums. The government had offered raises totalling 12.87 per cent, plus a signing bonus of $3,000. The total cost of the rival offers differed by only $121 over the life of the contract, but from the nurses' point of view, the gap was huge. They will start the next round of bargaining with a wage rate $1.23 per hour higher than they would have under the government's proposal. By the normal standards of wage negotiations, that's a gigantic advantage.Though their demands were more modest, LPNs and other health-care professions couldn't persuade Ashley that their proposal was the least unreasonable. They asked for raises compounding to 14.1 per cent over three years. Ashley accepted the government proposal of 7.7 per cent compounded plus a signing bonus of $1,500. The one-time bonus will count toward pensions, but will not affect wages in the next round of negotiations. All the contracts expire in twenty-six months.In Ashley's reasoning, the crucial difference was the critical shortage of nurses, a problem that does not yet affect LPNs and most other health-care professions. A disproportionate one-time increase is needed to help recruit and retain nurses.

It's clear Ashley would have like to give laboratory technologists a similar one-time increase for the same reason, but the final offer selection process didn't allow her to single them out from others in their bargaining unit.The government's final offer to LPNs and other health-care workers was $750 better than a tentative agreement brokered in June by mediator Bruce Outhouse. Employees rejected that deal by a vote of 57 per cent. The union's backtracking from positions its negotiators had twice accepted as reasonable troubled Ashley. The imposed settlement will barely keep pace with projected inflation over the contract's life.The muddled, unsatisfactory resolution leaves plenty of room for both sides to claim victory and plenty of wounds for both sides to lick. Health boards now face the challenge of managing hospitals in which critical workers are bitter and resentful.Ashley's decision sets an uneasy foundation for the next round of bargaining. Hospitals cannot function without x-ray and lab technologists, and whatever government is in power can expect a bitter struggle with them next time.Not to be overlooked in the fog of numbers is one huge union victory: the affected workers forced an obdurate government to repeal a hated piece of legislation. They did so through protests that were focused and militant, and by shrewdly avoiding pitfalls during the month long confrontation.The government has promised to replace Bill 68 with sweeping legislation governing collective bargaining in essential government services. The danger is that cabinet, so obviously over its head in collective bargaining policy, will see forced arbitration - or even forced final offer selection - as a template for future contract negotiations. If so, a wide range of government employees may find themselves stripped of the right to strike.That would be a big mistake by a government that has already made some whoppers. When forced arbitration hangs over the proceedings, there's little incentive to negotiate, and much incentive to stake out extreme positions. Forced arbitration leaves workers no sense of participation in setting the terms and conditions of their work lives. It is a recipe for alienation and resentment. "It's not collective," said union lawyer Ron Pink. "It's imposed. There's no collective to it."The crisis of early summer was brought on by a cabinet led by small-town conservatives who see strikes as anathema, and who therefore resent collective bargaining that takes place under threat of strike. Again and again, John Hamm declared that his government could not permit a strike in the health-care system.In the end, that position produced weeks of chaos exceeding anything that might have resulted from orderly, legal strikes with mandatory maintenance of essential services. It produced a settlement no one is happy with. It leaves important, valued workers embittered at being forced to work under conditions they consider unfair and unreasonable.The government might have won a strike. Everyone loses when cabinet, in its ignorance, messes with a complex system it doesn't understand.

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