Hundreds of striking home-care workers were ordered back to work Saturday after the Nova Scotia government passed legislation that provoked sharp rebukes from opposition leaders, who say it will do nothing but sour labour relations in the province.
The governing Liberals voted unanimously for Bill 30, the Essential Home-support Services Act, while the NDP and Progressive Conservatives opposed it in the unusual weekend vote to get about 420 workers back on the job.
Premier Stephen McNeil defended the measure, arguing it doesn't take away the right to strike but requires an employer and union to determine who is considered an essential worker. If an agreement can't be reached, the matter would be submitted to the Nova Scotia Labour Board.
He also issued a pointed criticism of the NDP, who he said failed to resolve the ongoing dispute while they were in power before the Liberals won the election last October.
"They had almost two years to deal with this issue and they sat on their hands and did nothing," he said after the bill passed at about 10:30 a.m.
"We're saying you can keep your right to strike. All we were doing is ensuring that we lined up essential service legislation that reflected the needs of the citizens receiving those services."
But the head of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, which represents the workers, said the legislation effectively strips them of the right to strike since disputes over what is an essential service could drag on for months.
"This legislation wasn't written so that we would have essential service to protect the public," Joan Jessome said angrily. "It was written so they'd never have the right to strike."
The passage marks the first major dispute the government has faced since it assumed power and comes after the bill was sent to committee, where 128 witnesses signed up to speak to the legislation, slowing its progress through the house.
Early Friday evening, all three parties reached an agreement to reconvene the house Saturday morning while the committee continued hearing witnesses. It wrapped up at about 11 p.m.
The union says striking workers at Northwood Homecare want the same pay as their counterparts in hospitals.
McNeil said the home-care workers have been offered a three-year contract with a 7.5 per cent raise. Under the offer before the union, hourly wages for Northwood home-care workers would rise to $17.95 as of April 1. Hospital workers doing similar jobs will make $18.83 as of April 1.
The home-care workers supply services provided by Northwood to about 1,800 people and have been without a contract since March 2012.
The legislation would also affect some other home-care workers with other organizations.
NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald panned the bill, saying it treats home-care workers unfairly and sets a bad precedent for future labour negotiations.
"The broader implications are protracted labour disputes," she said. "If they arrive at proportional numbers that put some people on the street and some people working, we're going to see labour disputes that drag on and on and on."
MacDonald, who was the NDP's health minister, said her party wasn't able to resolve the matter because there were hundreds of contracts that had expired in the health-care sector and few unions bargaining for all of the contracts.
Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the legislation is vague and doesn't ensure care for seniors, calling it a "one-time, Band-Aid bill."