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Nova Scotia union files court challenge over new home-support labour law

Joan Jessome, left, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.

Peter Parsons/CP

One of the unions named in a new Nova Scotia law aimed at preventing strikes in the home-support sector has filed a court action against the provincial government, saying the legislation violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by undermining the collective bargaining process.

The 30,000-member Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union filed a statement of claim Tuesday in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. The legal challenge takes aim at the Essential Home-Support Services Act, which was passed March 1 by the province's majority Liberal government, ending a one-day strike by about 400 home-support workers.

Union president Joan Jessome issued a statement saying the act is discriminatory because about 90 per cent of the 1,600 affected workers are women.

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A spokeswoman for the province's Justice Department said the government couldn't comment on the court action because it had yet to receive notice that a statement of claim had been filed.

However, the government has said the law doesn't take away the right to strike.

Premier Stephen McNeil has said the law protects vulnerable Nova Scotians by prohibiting home-support workers from striking until the union enters into an agreement that spells out which workers are essential. And if an agreement can't be reached, the matter would be submitted to the Nova Scotia Labour Board for resolution.

The statement of claim notes that the union has bargained on behalf of home-support workers for more than 20 years, and in that time has successfully concluded dozens of collective agreements without going on strike.

Before the law was passed, the unionized workers had been working without a contract since March 31, 2012.

The union says the law breaches the Charter under the sections that deal with freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to equal protection under the law without discrimination.

"Bill 30 substantially interferes with the right of the [union] to conduct a strike as part of collective bargaining," the statement says. "The right to bargain collectively, stripped of the right to strike, is a hollow right."

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The document goes on to say that the definition of what is considered essential under the act is overly broad and it criticizes the fact there is no time limit for negotiating an essential services agreement.

"Extended negotiation of essential home-support services agreements will deepen the damage done to the right of the [union] to engage in collective bargaining," the claim says. "It undermines the ability of unions to speak for their members. It sends the message that inequities faced by low-wage, predominately female workers cannot be remedied through collective bargaining. It causes employees to feel powerless and unable to control their employment destiny."

The union represents home-support workers at Northwood Homecare in Halifax, the Nova Scotia branch of the Victoria Order of Nurses and smaller home-support services across the province.

The unionized workers help mostly older people live safely in their homes by helping them with basic personal care, light housekeeping, laundry and meal preparation.

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