Jan 112015

By Shay Enxuga, member of Solidarity Halifax. Originally published at RankandFile.ca

Protesters hitting the streets this past fall in Halifax to show their opposition to the Liberal government's Bill 1

Protesters hitting the streets this past fall in Halifax to show their opposition to the Liberal government’s Bill 1

December 17, 2014, marked the end of a weeklong arbitration session in Nova Scotia, although the final outcome of Bill 1 – the Health Authorities – is still yet to be decided. The Stephen McNeil Liberals passed this controversial legislation on October 3, 2014, amid nearly a week of around-the-clock protests by trade unionists and supporters. This bill radically restructures healthcare in Nova Scotia by merging the nine existing district health authorities into one, and merging the 50 previous bargaining units into just four: nurses, healthcare, administrative support, and service support.

Arbitration began on December 8, 2014, after mediated talks between the four health care unions – Unifor, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Nova Scotia Nurses Union (NSNU) and Nova Scotia Government Employees Union (NSGEU) – and the employer, the Health Authorities of Nova Scotia (HANS), failed to reach a resolution.

In a press release issued by CUPE at the close of mediation, CUPE Acute Care Coordinator Wayne Thomas states that, “Mediation only works if all parties involved feel vulnerable enough to work toward a solution.” However, CUPE argues that because of the way Bill 1 is structured, the employer had no incentive to reach a mediated solution. Instead, HANS just waited for the 45 days of mediation to expire and for arbitration to begin.

James Dorsey, the arbitrator appointed to handle the health authorities merger, was recommended by all four health care unions and accepted by the employer. Dorsey has over 37 years experience in arbitration, and previously worked on the health care merger in British Columbia in 2001. That merger resulted in a bargaining association model where unions work collaboratively to bargain on behalf of their membership.

During the arbitration sessions, Dorsey heard from the unions and the employer on issues regarding collective agreements, pay structure, seniority, and bargaining units. Throughout the week, both Unifor and CUPE remained committed to the bargaining association model while NSGEU continued to call for run-off votes. Although the unions proposed different alternatives to the issues of bargaining units they remained united in the opposition the employer’s proposal – which would see workers assigned to bargaining units. All of the unions agreed that the employer should not be involved in decisions regarding union representation for workers and that Bill 1 is an assault on organized labor and collective bargaining rights.

In an interview with rabble.ca, Lana Panye, Atlantic Director of Unifor, stated that, “We are all challenging Bill 1 with respect its infringement on Freedom of Association, Section 2D of the Charter.” Danny Cavanagh, CUPE Nova Scotia President, argued that, “Bill 1 put all four unions in the untenable position of having to horse-trade their own members. No union worth their salt would ever consider doing that. That’s what makes this bill so cynical and diabolical.”

Despite earlier statements over the summer that the government would consider alternative proposals to assigning workers bargaining units, during arbitration Dorsey questioned the employer as to whether the bargaining association model was ever on the table at all following the passing of the legislation. Indeed, the Liberals directly wrote into section 89 (1) of Bill 1 that each union, “may represent only one of the four bargaining units for a health authority,” thus leaving little room for interpretation.

The Liberal government’s refusal to consider either bargaining associations or run-off votes is a strategic attack on union solidarity. Bill 1 continues the Liberal government’s assault on organized labor. Since they were elected in October of 2013 they have gutted first contract arbitration and stripped health care workers of their right to strike with the passage of Bill 37.

Despite the auspicious claim that the selection of bargaining agents is meant to be “conducive to achieving stable and harmonious labor relations between the health authorities and unionized employees,” Bill 1 is a tactic to divide and conquer. This legislation is intended to weaken the strength of unions in Nova Scotia so that the liberals can fast track their austerity agenda.

Dorsey will give his decision on Monday, January 19, 2015 – a deadline that has been extended from January 1, 2015 at Dorsey’s request. Bill 1 is expected to come into effect on April 1, 2015.


Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization

Jan 072015

James Hutt, provincial co-ordinator of the Nova Scotia Citizens’ Health Care Network and member of Solidarity Halifax co-authored this Chronicle Herald article advocating for a national drug plan. The article was co-authored with Dr. Monika Dutt, chair of Canadian Doctors for Medicare and a public health and family physician in Cape Breton.

“Nova Scotia has realized that having five pharmacare silos is inefficient for delivering coverage. The same can be said at the national level,” say Dr. Monika Dutt and James Hutt.

“Nova Scotia has realized that having five pharmacare silos is inefficient for delivering coverage. The same can be said at the national level,” say Dr. Monika Dutt and James Hutt.

In December, Nova Scotia announced the elimination of the Department of Community Services’ extended pharmacare program for low-income Nova Scotians.

Patients enrolled in this program will be transferred to the province’s larger family pharmacare program. This small step could help simplify Nova Scotia’s nebulous web of drug plans, each with different application processes, criteria for eligibility, drug formularies, and co-payments requirements.

What if this moment of change extended beyond the 300 patients that Nova Scotia is transferring to its larger pharmacare program? What if we went even further?

The country as a whole should be looking at how we can simplify and expand access to prescription drugs through the development of a national pharmacare program.

Changing the province’s pharmacare strategy comes at a time when calls from across the country for a national pharmacare strategy are growing stronger.

Currently, Canadian provinces and territories each have their own maze of formularies and programs. Each province negotiates drug prices with pharmaceutical companies separately and confidentially. The result of this process? Canadians pay 30 per cent more for prescriptions than the OECD average.

Efforts by provincial governments will never be able to achieve the level of price negotiation with pharmaceutical companies that a national program could. This is an issue of economies of scale.

Nova Scotia has realized that having five pharmacare silos is inefficient for delivering coverage. The same can be said at the national level.

Policy researcher Marc-André Gagnon cautions that provinces can only do so much to combat high drug prices. Bringing Canada’s pharmaceutical costs in line with international averages requires federal leadership and the establishment of a national plan.

Not only would such a plan be capable of reducing costs for treatment, but it could also standardize the cost of medication across Canada.

Cancertainty reports that the annual cost of oral cancer medication ranges from $0 in British Columbia and the Prairie provinces to $23,400 in Nova Scotia.

In fact, Nova Scotians face the highest drug costs in the country, despite being having the second lowest average income.

One in four Canadians have no drug coverage at all, while in Nova Scotia that number is almost one in three.

This wild variation in cost and access is unjustifiable and creates a geographic barrier to treatment. A national formulary would standardize the cost and availability of drugs across the country.

This brings us back to the challenge Nova Scotia faces. Supporters of the current system worry that ending the extended program will make accessing prescriptions more difficult for patients living in poverty. This important concern must be addressed.

Research has demonstrated that a co-pay as small as $2 per prescription can create barriers to treatment for impoverished patients.

This barrier results in unfilled prescriptions, skipped doses and reduced quality of life. It also means increased hospitalizations and much higher treatment costs after the patient becomes sicker due to a lack of treatment.

While accessibility is an issue Nova Scotia will need to account for during the transition, it is important to note that developing a national program would also address this issue.

Researchers have found creating a national formulary — even in a limited capacity that covers only generic drugs — would reduce costs enough to eliminate co-payment requirements.

The call for pharmacare comes as provincial and territorial governments face a sharp decline in revenues from federal health transfers. Starting in 2017, the current federal government plans to reduce health transfers by $36 billion over the following decade and will tie funding to per-capita growth. These changes put Nova Scotia, with an aging and shrinking population, at a disadvantage.

According to recent research by the Canadian Federation of Nurses, a full pharmacare program would save $11.4 billion annually. This move would increase access to medicine, keep people healthier and out of hospitals, while saving an enormous sum of money.

That’s why health ministers and premiers are adding their voices to the growing movement. Creating a national pharmacare program is a rare issue that has approval from Canadians of all walks of life, across the political spectrum. According to an EKOS poll, 78 per cent of Canadians support a universal pharmacare program, and 82 per cent support bulk purchasing to reduce the costs of prescription drugs.

In 2015, let’s consider the extraordinary opportunity before us.

Canada is the only country with a universal health-care system that excludes pharmaceuticals.

This discussion should go beyond a change in a provincial pharmacare program.

This is about the vision and the political will to make our health care system more sustainable, accessible and equitable.


Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.

Jan 062015

By Judy Haiven, professor in the Management department of the Sobey School of Business – Saint Mary’s University. She is chair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-NS and a member of Solidarity Halifax.

Originally published at the Halifax Media Coop.

Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

I cringed when I heard Michael Enright’s introduction to the Sunday Edition today (CBC-Radio One).  I cringed because I heard similar arguments 33 years ago when food banks first opened in Canada.  The idea was to help the poor by giving them either what we middle class people could afford to part with in our kitchen cupboards, or buying an extra tin or two of beans, tomatoes, or a jar of peanut butter, or a bag of pasta and leaving the groceries in the supermarket’s designated bin for the food bank.

Giving to the food banks makes us feel good. It makes the CBC feel good. For the last several years, the CBC in Halifax has raised thousands of dollars and tons of food for the food banks through art auctions and collections during the Christmas season.  Today the idea of socks is catching the media’s attention.  Enright and others who can easily afford the few dollars to buy extra pairs of socks feel good about handing them out to charities or directly  to people on the streets.

Both these practices — donating to the food bank or giving out socks — are similar: they make the giver feel good, while ensuring the giver does not have to directly give the poor person money and worry that it will be ‘misspent’ on alcohol, drugs or cigarettes.

How nice of us!  We give the poor our castoff and mostly boring tinned food because they don’t deserve to eat the nice food we eat (except for the special Christmas dinners at the shelters  or church basements). And we give the poor socks, (Chinese-made in factories that pay workers pennies an hour) because socks are essential cushions and feetwarmers for the feet of poor people who must trudge kilometres, from the shelter breakfast to the drop-in centre to the church basement, in search of three meals each day.

Somehow we in the middle class know what’s right for the poor – banged up tins and instant noodle soup packets or socks to help them live on the streets or shelters in winter.

But the middle class seldom calls for an increase in welfare, a guaranteed annual income or permanent housing for the homeless or the poor. I wonder how many times Mr Enright has attended a protest or action by anti-poverty activists to demand housing for the homeless?  How many times has he written letters to the editor or the premier about the situation? When has he spoken publicly in favour of a guaranteed annual income?

Poverty and homelessness are not any one person’s fault. They are the fault of a society based on greed, debt and desire to punish the ‘have-nots’, and give tax breaks to the ‘haves’.

I’m one of the ‘haves’.  I say enough. I want to pay higher taxes so others can eat, rent an apartment and have a guaranteed decent annual income.   Buying socks and extra packages of pasta will never make the changes we need as a society.  But speaking out, demonstrating and holding our provincial and federal politicians accountable could help.

Presently, Nova Scotia taxpayers are footing the bill for projects such as a new Halifax convention centre ($160 million), and a bailout for 93 mink farmers ($9 million).  The NS government has just issued  a payroll tax rebate for Lockheed Martin ($6.5 million over 7 years). That works out to the McNeil government subsidising Lockheed-Martin $4,642.86 per employee — which is 10% more than what a single people on welfare is given to live on every year (after their housing allowance is paid).

I think that $175 million could go a long way to build affordable housing for the homeless and the poor – it’s a start.


Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.

Jan 052015

Is this better for Cuban Socialism or Capitalist Restoration?

By John Hutton, member of Solidarity Halifax.

What is likely the most significant shift in Cuban-American relations in five decades took place today when the United States announced that it would release three Cubans from what is called the “Cuban 5” in exchange for Cuba’s release of convicted USAID contractor Alan Gross. Gross was jailed by Cuban authorities for espionage and connection to US-organized attempts to destabilize the Cuban regime. The Cuban 5 were also jailed on espionage charges, although their actual activities appear to have been counter-terrorism efforts against some of the more hardline anti-communist groups in Miami.

In addition to the prisoner swap,announcements have been made that the US will be opening an embassy in Havana, easing some restrictions on imports (Americans can get Cuban cigars again!), and the Americans will welcome Cuban officials at regional diplomatic meetings such as the upcoming Summit of the Americas. The exchange is significant because it’s success required a significant level of trust-building between the two governments,which have historically been paranoid and overheated towards each other. It marks a major shift in US policy, which has maintained a tight economic blockade against Cuba since 1961. The new model that Barack Obama is pursuing is to normalize relations, engage the Cuban government and hope that they can affect change by participating in economic life on the island. This shift should be welcomed: the American strategy of waiting for the Castros to die, followed by an anti-communist uprising like what happened in the former Soviet Union is clearly not going to happen. The merits (or lack thereof) of the sort of change the Americans want will be discussed later, but the embargo benefits nobody and anything to hasten its end is good news.

The conditions for improving US-Cuban relations are very good. Raul Castro has been implementing a series of significant reforms in Cuba, including the legalization of hundreds of forms of small businesses and enthusiastic support for foreign investment. Part of this is in recognition that the old Soviet-style approach to economics has not worked in Cuba since Soviet subsidies dried up in 1990, if the model ever worked at all.

The Cuban system is rife with contradictions. Its economy is plagued by inefficiencies and shortages. Most Cubans rely on the informal economy (aka the Black Market) to get by, as the $26/month salary is anything but adequate. All sorts of theft and fake book-keeping are normal practices in state industries as Cubans seek to resolva mi problema, as the saying goes. The chaos this causes in the Cuban economy cannot be entirely blamed on the embargo, but that too is a major issue- the embargo is estimated to have cost the island $1.1 trillion since its implementation in 1961. The political system is anything but free, pluralistic, or democratic. Yet in spite of its challenges, Cuba’s achieved impressive social goals. They have the highest doctor-per-capita ratio of any country, better literacy and infant mortality rates than the United States, an impressive 85% home ownership rate, free education to the highest levels, are world leaders in sustainable agriculture and urban farming, and it was Cuba, not any rich developed nation, receiving praise for its role infighting ebola in West Africa. Cuba will be one of the only countries to meet all millennium development goals.

As can be seen, there is much need for reform, and much worthy of preserving. So a good question to ask is:is ending the embargo good for Cuban socialism, or good for restoring US-style capitalism?

One thing is certain: the Cuban government wants an end to the embargo. With Brazilian support, Raul Castro built a massive new shipping port in Mariel as part of the creation of a “Special Economic Zone,” where Cuba’s strict conditions for market activity will be more relaxed in the hopes of attracting more foreign investment. Reading between the lines, it should be seen as preparation for an influx of trade when American ships once again sail to Cuba and Havana’s port is not big enough to process all the traffic.

Cuba’s situation is unique, as for probably the first time since the revolution it faces greater security risks internally than from the United States. The regime’s ability to grow the economy matters more than anything else for maintaining its hold on authority. Debate on how to do that is raging within the Cuban ruling class. Should they follow the Chinese model,create special economic zones everywhere and let foreigners invest in whatever they want? Should they stay true to Fidelismo and keep the state as large as possible? More likely is the Vietnamese model, where foreign investment is welcomed but expected to fulfill some social needs, differing from the less restricted Chinese model. Unfortunately, discussion of multi-party democracy remains out of bounds publicly. What the Cuban government wants to avoid is the Russian model, where opening society up too quickly led to a collapse of communism, state enterprises were privatized and a form of highly corrupt gangster capitalism took hold. Even for ardent anti-communists, avoiding the Russian model should be seen as a good thing.

The American government, for its part,wants a full restoration of pre-revolutionary Cuban capitalism. Barack Obama’s rhetoric today of promising not to be a colonizer in Latin America anymore should not be taken seriously. Obama’s change in strategy is not to become friends with Raul Castro, it is happening because he believes that market forces will be more effective at increasing American influence on the island, with their highest goal still being regime change. These are new tactics, not new values.

In negotiating today’s prisoner swap,the Cubans and Americans have finished their first lesson in how to dance with each other. The full act has yet to be played out, and each will have many risks of stumbling along the way. Obama will have difficulty deepening his strategy, as a Republican-controlled congress is not likely to repeal the embargo (or enact any rational policies on Cuba, for that matter). Cuba, for its part, will need to find ways to create socially useful channels for dissent, which will inevitably increase as more capitalism brings more inequality. Measures to protect its impressive social services from the worst aspects of capitalism will also be necessary; education and healthcare are far more precious than iPhones. Cuba would benefit from legalizing independent trade unions, which would build workers power against a re-emerging capitalist class. Most post-communist regimes have been plagued by communist bureaucrats suddenly becoming capitalist managers of privatized state enterprises, and this is what needs to be watched for. Independent trade unions, an inherently socialist thing, could be appealing to some sections of the Cuban regime, and could ensure that dissent comes from Cuban workers and the left (with an interest in strong social services) rather than just a profit-minded business class.

The United States has a chance to improve ties with Cuba in 2015, starting with the Summit of the Americas. Cuba has an impressive operation in West Africa to fight ebola, and American assistance there could be an excellent opportunity to build ties and do good work together internationally.

The first few steps of the new salsa dance have been made, but a much longer act remains to be performed.


Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.