Robyn Benson, PSAC

Nova Scotia nurses: labour's front lines


A strike by Nova Scotian nurses against health services provider Capital Health recently took a predictable path. Overtired from working under increasingly tough conditions where understaffing has become the norm, the nurses went on strike to get lower nurse-patient ratios. If ever there was a common interest between strikers and those they serve professionally, this was it: the more patients per nurse, the less adequate is the assistance that an individual patient receives.

Common sense, right? But Capital Health and the Nova Scotia government didn’t see things that way. The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) representing the nurses spent weeks in negotiations to come to a fair collective agreement that would establish reasonable nurse-patient ratios. Nothing doing. Stephen McNeil, the Liberal Premier of Nova Scotia, involved himself in the dispute by mocking the nurses’ threat to resign en masse; his government had already legislated home-care workers back to work on March 1. For its part, Capital Health contented itself with petty acts of intimidation.

When the strike deadline approached, McNeil introduced drastic essential services legislation that effectively guts the nurses’ right to strike. This isn’t because nurses actually performing those services would be in danger of striking—they didn’t walk out earlier either. Protocols were agreed to on the spot by labour and management in previous disputes before anyone hit the bricks. But this legislation will permit employers in the health care sector to drag the process on for months, before a strike is legal. And it extends this legislation to tens of thousands of other health workers across the province.

Many nurses, risking heavy fines, walked out last Tuesday to protest the tabling on this legislation before the legal strike period had begun—a so-called “wildcat strike.” The nurses managed a little over a day of legal strike before they were sent back to work by the McNeil government on Thursday. Patient care remains in jeopardy: nurses will continue to be overworked to the point of exhaustion.

Up against a hostile government and an employer that continually ignored their professional concerns, these nurses are some of today’s heroes of labour. Their sheer determination and spirit are undeniable. The action of the Nova Scotia government is part of an escalating pattern of overreach by governments in various Canadian jurisdictions: making even the suggestion of a public service strike illegal in Alberta, for example, or sending postal workers who weren’t even on strike (they had been locked out by Canada Post) back to work with less than the employer’s last offer. The bludgeon of legislation that used to be the exception is now the norm. The right to organize and the right to strike are under heavy attack, both provincially and federally—as we in the PSAC know all too well.

The nurses, however, have sent a strong and clear message: governments may use their legislative powers to bully labour, but this is a war they can’t win. Even making strikes illegal doesn’t prevent workers from walking out. In Alberta, far more illegal strikes in the acute care sector have occurred than in Nova Scotia where such strikes have been legal, and this is also the case elsewhere in Canada.

Nurses have taken on employers and governments before, and they aren’t going back to work quietly in Nova Scotia. The 1999 nurses strike in Saskatchewan, and the Quebec strike that same year, demonstrated rare courage that should inspire us all: their fight is truly our fight, and by “our” I mean all other working Canadians.

In the meantime, message received, Premier McNeil. Lessons are learned. People remember. Whether at the ballot box or in the streets, the fightback across the country has barely begun. And, as always, nurses will be on the front lines.

[Photo credit: CBC]

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on April 9, 2014 8:30 AM.

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