Solidarity Forever?

“Government and the four unions involved in health care have reached an agreement today, March 13.” So began a very short press release on a very big topic, late on the Friday before March break.

The word “agreement” can have a range of meanings from a formal and detailed legal document to more general expressions of concurrence. The “agreement” in question is in the very shallow end of the pool.

Apparently there is a document but it was not signed by any of the parties. It was not released to the public. The Department of Health and Wellness advises that it consists of some statements of principles including:

  1. The unions will get the bargaining associations that they have wanted from the beginning.
  2. The IWK and the Provincial Health Authority will act together in bargaining so there will be only four bargaining agreements.
  3. The unions will not raid each other.
  4. Each of the four affected unions will lead the bargaining for one of the four employee groups.
  5. Ratification and strike votes will be counted across the entire employee group, not by individual union.
  6. The assignment of employees to employee groups will be as determined by the arbitrator.
  7. The unions will amend their constitutions and the government will implement legislation to fulfill the agreement.
  8. Many issues are unaddressed. Employee mobility between locations will be problematic if it means crossing boundaries, boundaries that will have to be preserved for no other purpose than the divvying up union dues.

What will happen if a new facility is built incorporating functions that were previously done in locations with different unions—say nurses at Dartmouth General and the QE2?

How long will it take for the differing clauses in the existing agreements to come together, reducing additional administrative cost? How much will it cost to get everyone on the same agreement for each group? Each union will manage its own grievance procedures—how can that work with any consistency?

Will the unions not in the lead negotiating position remain silent while negotiations develop? Or will one or more of them let it be known, publicly or quietly, that they are not happy with the way things are going? Will there in fact be a competition to look the most hard-nosed between participating unions for the same employee group?

Government takes comfort in the Essential Health and Community Services Act which says that work stoppages cannot occur until an essential services agreement is reached. This makes it harder for unions to disable the system just by coming to the brink of a strike, as we have seen several times.

But what if an agreement is not reached? It will then end up in an arbitration process, for which the recent track is not a positive sign. Likewise the Labour Board can cause a mediation/arbitration process to happen for all items necessary to complete a new collective agreement.

Perhaps the government takes relies on the clause that says the arbitrator must consider “the employer’s ability to pay, in light of the fiscal situation of the province.” Unfortunately, as we have seen, arbitrators sometimes ignore clauses that do not fit with their view of the world.

And of course it is anyone’s guess as to how long it will take the parties to reach a real agreement that responds to the questions above and many others. All of this confusion and uncertainty is entirely for the benefit of the unions getting what they are used to in dues. It is hard to see how it helps employees. It certainly does not serve the interest of patients. It is a great pity that the government’s implementation of its original was so clumsy.

The bringing together of bargaining processes is not the most important issue in implementing the health care amalgamation. Janet Knox is bringing together her leadership team. Steve Parker is planning the work of the new board. Both groups have very difficult jobs, and the last thing they need is a lot of political meddling of the kind that typified the NDP government.

The Liberals must establish clear lines of accountability and then let the management team and board do their jobs. Fortunately that only requires patience, not skill.

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