Shared Dissatisfaction

Paramedics will have their compensation determined by an arbitrator. The outcome is unlikely to please anyone.

On July 5, with just hours to spare before a strike, the government passed legislation requiring the matter to be resolved by final offer arbitration. This requires each party to submit an offer and the arbitrator to pick one.

In theory this forces the parties to be more reasonable. Given that the negotiations had become a dysfunctional mess this was probably the least bad of the choices available.

So what is the arbitrator supposed to do? Both sides to the debate would argue that the outcome should be ‘fair’ but that is a word open to many possible interpretations.

One approach would be to look at the increases given to other first responders or health professionals. Another would be to look at the actual pay for those professions.

Alternatively the arbitrator could look at pay of other paramedics. Should that comparison be regional or national? Unsurprisingly the employer feels that a comparison to Atlantic Canada is appropriate while the paramedics would like to focus on Alberta, because the pay there is highest.

Some Nova Scotian paramedics have moved there for higher pay, as have Nova Scotians in virtually every other profession. On the other hand EMC, the employer, reports no serious difficulty in keeping positions filled.

The Ambulance Services Continuation (2013) Act is entirely silent on which criteria the arbitrator should consider in making the final decision. In other words the arbitrator could choose to be guided by any of the methods described above, or none of them.

After hearing out both sides and receiving their final offers the arbitrator will have to simply pick one.

While it is not possible to know what the parties will put on the table it is instructive to consider the most recent proposals.

When talks broke down the union advised that only offers of a 15% wage increase over three years plus a defined benefit pension would be considered. Given that the members repeatedly turned down agreements that their leaders had negotiated it is not clear that even this would have been accepted.

EMC was offering the change to defined benefit pension (which they estimate to be worth 3% of payroll) plus 11.1% wage increase over 4 years, 7 months.

This offer had been enthusiastically endorsed by senior union leaders:

“The new pension plan for paramedics is a huge accomplishment. This has set a new benchmark for the entire labour movement in Canada” according to Rick Clarke, President of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour.

“I can tell you we have thousands of public sector members who would be extremely pleased with this package. This in my view is a tremendous achievement in today’s economy” said Ted Crockett, International Representative of the IUOE, the paramedics union.

If EMC chooses to repeat its offer it would be surprising if, in the light of those endorsements, an arbitrator chose to award something more.

So one possible outcome is that the employer will offer and the arbitrator will accept the same offer that the union turned down, or one with small cosmetic differences.

That is likely to sit the badly with the paramedics but they will have not much choice other than waiting till next time. In the meantime they will have to find a way to elect leaders who they are willing to support when tentative agreements are reached. It is very difficult to negotiate with a union leader who cannot speak for her or his members.

The increase offered by the employer will also be a problem for government, which intervened unhelpfully but actively in the negotiations. Many public sector health workers will point to what the increases paramedics received the next time their contracts are up for bargaining.

All of this must seem unfamiliar to those employed in the largely non-union private sector. Consider for example engineering consultants or employees in information and communications technologies.

For such private sector employees the principal concern is that their work may be lost to other employers, or other offices of their own employers. There is almost no chance that they would form a union, let alone go on strike. They are likely to resent the tax implications of generous settlements in the public sector.

On the other hand, if they dislike their employer they can easily switch companies without having to uproot their families and move to another province. Their’s is a different world.

When the process is complete the paramedics will feel they got too little, their employer and those who worry about the province’s finances will worry that they got too much, and workers outside the monopolistic public sector will find the whole thing confusing and unreasonable.


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