By Solidarity Halifax members Judy and Larry Haiven.
Judy and Larry Haiven at Saint Mary’s University say that quick legislative fixes do nothing to address the underlying concerns in labour disputes such as the one between Nova Scotia paramedics and the government. (CHRISTIAN LAFORCE / Staff)
What are we to make of the outlawing of a paramedics’ strike in Nova Scotia?
The right of workers to bargain collectively over their terms and conditions of employment has been upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada as part of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the right to strike is a key element of our democracy recognized in rulings on international covenants that Canada has signed.
Strikes cause disruption and difficulties. This is not a new thing. For the past half-century Canadian governments, both federal and provincial, have wrestled with the dilemma of how to maintain adequate public services while honouring collective bargaining.
Our research shows that the best method for governments to accomplish this is to use as light a legislative touch as possible. Health care, police, fire and emergency services, can and do all withstand the occasional labour disruption much better than critics suggest.
Recently, a very heavy legislative thumb on the scale has been in evidence. Ottawa especially, but also Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia and other provinces have not hesitated to outlaw strikes, both temporarily and permanently. Ottawa has ramped up the influx of temporary foreign workers at 75 per cent of the pay of regular workers. And there has been a weakening of labour and employment laws.
So why is the Nova Scotia NDP government piling on? Unfortunately, it’s all part of an “austerity” mania rampant since the financial crisis of 2007. For the 20 prosperous years before that, workers’ real earnings remained stagnant while corporate profits blossomed. But the crisis has worsened the trend. If it looks like and quacks like an attack on wages and working conditions, then it is an attack.
Paramedics, coming late to professionalization and unionization, have been trying to play catchup for the past 15 years, difificult in an era of wages barely meeting the cost of living.
At the same time, the qualifications required of and the services provided by Nova Scotia paramedics have increased greatly with the advent of collaborative emergency centres.
Seeing the runup to a provincial election and a nominally pro-labour government as their best chance to rectify the situation, the paramedics have used the only instrument in their arsenal – the threat of a strike.
To make things worse, the no-strike legislation for paramedics imposes “final offer arbitration” where union and management each pitch one proposal only and the arbitrator picks the winner, all or nothing. This is the worst possible form (or the best depending on where you stand) of arbitration where a union is trying to achieve important changes. It favours the side putting forward the least ambitious proposal, usually the employer.
Will the no-strike legislation end the predicament? There is plenty of evidence that banning strikes does not prevent them. Indeed, we have shown that Alberta (where health care strikes have been banned permanently for 30 years) has had 15 times more strike activity than Nova Scotia (where such activity is legal, for now at least.)
The paramedics went on strike in 1999, government outlawed the strike and arbitration yielded far less than adequate results. If we keep on pushing these problems out of the way with quick legislative fixes, we will surely pay the price one way or other.
Judy and Larry Haiven teach in the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University.
Originally published on July 8, 2013 in The Chronicle Herald.
Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.