HALIFAX – Nurses in Halifax were ordered Tuesday to go to work after some of them refused to in defiance of proposed essential services legislation that they say effective takes away their right to strike.
The Nova Scotia Labour Board issued a cease-and-desist order after some nurses did not report for their shifts, forcing the cancellation of dozens of surgeries as tensions rose between the union that represents the nurses and the provincial government.
The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, which represents 2,400 nurses involved in the labour dispute, has asked them to comply with the order and report for their next scheduled work shifts.
Ray Larkin, a lawyer for the union, said it wasn’t surprised the board took such action.
“There were a couple of hundred registered nurses who didn’t report for work today,” Larkin said. “A concerted refusal to report to work gets brought to the Labour Board pretty quick in Nova Scotia.”
But he said the nurses are still preparing to hit the picket lines when they reach their legal strike position as of 12:01 a.m. Thursday.
Labour Minister Kelly Regan said any union members who defy the Labour Board’s order in the meantime would face fines. Under the Trade Union Act, individual members would face fines of $300 a day.
Frustration grew when Nova Scotia’s Liberal government introduced the essential services bill Monday night that union president Joan Jessome has called “draconian.”
“If you take something and you render it useless, you tell me what you’ve done to it?” Jessome asked the province’s law amendments committee Tuesday.
“You have taken away the right to strike.”
Jessome said the legislation will drive nurses to seek employment in other provinces as it fails to resolve staffing problems and weighs collective bargaining in favour of employers.
Capital Health CEO Chris Power said about 70 surgeries scheduled for Tuesday were cancelled as a result of the nurses’ job action, which she called an illegal strike, in addition to 19 that were previously postponed in anticipation of a strike Thursday.
Some patients have been transferred to other health districts and a unit for patients in its addictions recovery program had to be closed because there weren’t enough nurses to staff it, Power said.
“We are extremely grateful to those members of Local 97 who have decided to respect the law and their patients by remaining on the job today and we urge others to return to their roles immediately,” she told a news conference.
“We will have to cope with whatever comes our way because we have people who are dependent on our care. It will become increasingly problematic and more and more patients will be at risk the longer this goes on.”
Other areas, including emergency rooms, dialysis, cancer care and intensive care units, remained open, Capital Health said.
The health board will consult with its human resources department to determine what, if any, repercussions should be meted out to the nurses who did not attend work, Power said.
The nurses primarily work at four places in the Halifax area: the QEII Health Sciences Centre, Nova Scotia Hospital, East Coast Forensic Hospital and Public Health Services.
But the impact of a strike stretches beyond the city as its hospitals serve as a regional health centre.
Patients are treated at Halifax hospitals from across the Maritimes. Last week, Prince Edward Island began moving some patients back to their home province.
Outside the legislature Tuesday, nurses protested against the Essential Health and Community Services Act while some of their colleagues vented their frustration inside before the committee.
Karen Ferguson, a psychiatric nurse with 31 years of experience, agreed with Jessome’s position that the legislation would drive younger nurses away in search of better working conditions.
“I will predict soon you will need a law so that it is illegal to leave Nova Scotia,” Ferguson quipped to laughter from other union members.
“I will also predict that this will be the undoing of several political careers for a very long time.”
The legislation would require unions and employers throughout the health-care sector to have an essential services agreement in place before strikes or lockouts start.
In addition to nurses, the bill would apply to paramedics, 911 operators, hospital employees and people who work in homes for seniors, youth and people with disabilities. In all, about 35,000 to 40,000 workers would be covered by the law.
Government house leader Michel Samson said late Tuesday that the legislation would likely not pass until Friday.
The union and Capital Health have been unable to come to an agreement despite the help of a mediator.
The key sticking point is a demand from the union to increase nurse-to-patient ratios, something it says would improve patient safety. The health authority has said there is no evidence that mandated ratios guarantee better safety.
Premier Stephen McNeil said Monday the fact that there have been three labour disruptions in the health-care sector within seven months underscores the need for an essential services law.
The legislation would also allow parties to request conciliation or mediation to help negotiate an essential services agreement. If they can’t agree, either party could apply to the Nova Scotia Labour Board.