In a surprise move, the council of Nova Scotia health-care unions is recommending its members agree to a new process to try to resolve the protracted contract dispute with the province's health authority and the IWK Health Centre.
The news came not long before the council of unions announced Tuesday afternoon that members voted 93 per cent in favour of a provincewide strike mandate during a vote held over the last two weeks.
According to a news release from Labour Relations Minister Mark Furey, as part of the agreement, the parties will suspend the right to strike or lock out during this round of bargaining. If union members ratify the proposal, it would mean any matters that cannot be resolved at the bargaining table would move to a binding and final mediation-arbitration process created through the agreement.
A news release on Tuesday from the council of unions, which is made up of the Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union, the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, CUPE and Unifor, said bargaining committee members met on Monday and voted to recommend ratification of the proposal to their members.
Members to vote in coming weeks
If approved, the unions say the mediation-arbitration process that would be created — a first for them — would result in collective agreements for the health-care, nursing, support services and administrative professionals bargaining committees.
After information sessions are conducted, union members are expected to vote on the proposal in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, the council is observing a media blackout and not doing interviews while it focuses on communicating with members. A spokesperson for the IWK said officials there would also reserve comment until after the vote.
'A step closer'
Joanne Stone, the health authority's senior director of human resources, said the goal is to have contracts settled by the end of the year. The parties have agreed on William Kaplan as the arbitrator to make decisions on any matters that cannot be settled through bargaining, she said.
"We're taking a step forward and getting closer to getting a collective agreement for 23,000 employees and possibly having a process that ensures that there won't be a disruption in service for Nova Scotians, so it could be a very good result for all," she said in an interview.
While Stone would not comment on what's in the agreement, she did say the health authority is following the government's wage pattern, which has been established for all other collective agreements signed while Premier Stephen McNeil's Liberal government has been in power.
This news comes as the threat of a strike by health-care workers at the IWK, other than doctors and nurses, was starting to grow. If members ratify the proposal, it would be a big step in efforts to avoid job action by lab techs, social workers, respiratory therapists and other health workers at the region's largest children's hospital.
Essential services still to be resolved
Health-care unions and their employers are required to have essential-services agreements in place before being able to take job action.
While such an agreement has yet to be reached between workers and the Nova Scotia Health Authority, there is one in place at the IWK.
While an essential-services agreement needs to be finalized with the health authority regardless of the outcome of bargaining, the absence of one would not prevent collective agreements from being reached for workers in the meantime.