The Nova Scotia NDP government recalled the House to introduce temporary legislation making it illegal for the 800 paramedics employed by EMC Inc. to strike.
Nova Scotia is one of the only jurisdictions in Canada where strikes in health care have not been permanently banned. This situation is laudable, must be defended and should not be cast aside, even temporarily, whenever a problem of disruption of public services raises its head.
The right to strike is part and parcel of a mature democracy and is enshrined in international covenants to which Canada is party. Strikes, by their very nature, sometimes cause disruption and difficulties. And they are still an essential part of the right to bargain collectively, which has been upheld as a basic right under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Seldom mentioned in media reports are two crucial facts which, together, have created the current crisis:
- In the past decade, the qualifications required of and the services provided by Nova Scotia paramedics have increased greatly with the advent of collaborative emergency centres.
- At the same time, paramedics (compared to their fellow health care professionals) gained collective bargaining rights quite late and, in an era of austerity, have been playing an unsuccessful game of catch-up with their counterparts, both in Nova Scotia and the rest of the country. It is not surprising that paramedics see the present time as their best chance to rectify that situation. The defined benefit pension plan (which most health care workers already have) alone was not enough to mend the imbalance.
Even arbitration, a notoriously conservative process, will likely not solve the problem. And final-offer arbitration, which will be imposed in this case, is the worst possible form, as it favours the party putting forward the least ambitious proposal. It is in the employer’s, not the employees’ interest to do so in this case.
Also seldom mentioned is that the employer in this case is a private company. Unlike most of the rest of health care and police and fire services, the private employer must draw a profit.
The government and the people of Nova Scotia must face the situation squarely and not push it away with legislative fixes, which will only drive the problem underground for another day.
For example in 2001, the Nova Scotia Conservative government under John Hamm tried to pass Bill 68, which outlawed a strike by nurses and other professionals in health care. (In a cruel coincidence, the current bill bears the same number.) The government’s plan in 2001 was torpedoed when 75% of 6500 unionized nurses threatened to resign en masse. Even the Medical Society of Nova Scotia (now Doctors Nova Scotia) called Bill 68 “the wrong legislation at the wrong time.” Eventually the government had to withdraw the legislation and come up with a mutually agreeable solution.
It is all too easy, in the short run, for governments to respond to industrial relations problems by banning strikes. But, as we have seen across the country in the past decade and a half, banning strikes will not ensure they don’t happen. Indeed, banning strikes may well invite civil disobedience by workers. And then people who were law-abiding citizens yesterday are criminalized today. A study by Judy and Larry Haiven of Saint Mary’s University shows that in Alberta (which banned health care strikes in 1983) the volume of strikes over the subsequent forty years was fifteen times that of Nova Scotia (where strikes were not illegal.)
In 1999 the NDP government of Saskatchewan made the blunder of banning a strike by registered nurses. Not only did that move freeze collective bargaining, but nurses defied the back-to-work order and continued on strike. The situation caused a catastrophic drop in support for the government, which barely stayed in power. Subsequently the NDP there took a more measured approach to health care strikes, patiently waiting them out. Indeed, Premier Lorne Calvert, commenting on a later strike by allied health professionals, said the following, which the Nova Scotia government could well take to heart:
“This is not the first time health care workers have withdrawn their services, let’s not all panic here…. The vast majority of our health care agreements have come to negotiated settlements, and as a result I believe we’ve had a better work place for our health care providers.”