Nova Scotia’s Liberal government passed essential services legislation Friday despite outcry from nurses who say it takes away their right to strike.
The move comes after about 2,400 unionized nurses in the Halifax area hit the picket lines Thursday.
Union president Joan Jessome says the nurses will comply with the legislation and end their strike.
The law requires unions and employers throughout the health-care sector to have an essential services agreement in place before job action can occur. If such a deal can’t be reached, an independent third party decides.
It applies to nurses, paramedics, ambulance dispatchers, hospital employees and people who work in homes for seniors, youth and people with disabilities.
In all, up to 40,000 workers are covered.
Relations between the government and the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, which represents the nurses, have soured since the Essential Health and Community Services Act was introduced Monday night.
Some nurses walked off the job Tuesday even though they weren’t in a legal strike position in protest of a bill Jessome said was “draconian.” They later returned to work after the Nova Scotia Labour Board issued a cease-and-desist order.
Premier Stephen McNeil has argued the law will bring labour stability to the health-care sector, pointing to three labour disruptions within seven months as his rationale for why it’s needed.
McNeil has also said the law will not take away a union’s right to strike because that option remains open once essential staffing levels have been negotiated or determined by the Nova Scotia Labour Board.
But the nurses’ union says such deals can take up to six months to reach, effectively undermining the leverage of a strike.
The nurses set up picket lines Thursday demanding higher staffing levels. They said they want a collective agreement that includes mandated nurse-to-patient ratios in the interests of patient safety.
But their employer, the Capital District Health Authority, said such tools are inflexible and there is no evidence they improve safety.
The strike resulted in hospital bed closures and the postponement of surgeries, as well as outpatients missing clinic appointments. While it has affected services at a number of hospitals and health centres in Halifax, its impact has extended beyond the city.
The hospitals provide medical treatment to people in the three Maritime provinces and some patients were transferred to other health districts in the region prior to the strike.
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.