A last-minute intervention by the Newfoundland and Labrador government has delayed a planned strike vote by ambulance operators in rural parts of the province.
Labour Minister Bernard Davis has appointed a conciliation board to bring Teamsters Local 855 and the Fewer group of ambulance companies closer to a contract.
Union spokesperson Hubert Dawe says the Teamsters "got slapped" with a letter announcing the decision Friday morning, the same day they were planning to hold a strike vote.
"It is upsetting to members to no end that they're not allowed to exercise the rights that are normally afforded to unionized people," Dawe said Friday.
"And our province, despite the fact that they can't interfere with private business, has taken these deliberate actions to undermine the efforts that are being put forward by our members."
The union represents about 200 people across different ambulance services in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. Seven ambulance services, all owned by Robert Fewer, would be affected by a strike in central and eastern Newfoundland.
This all looks to me like a test of how resolved our members are. - Hubert Dawe
The contract for most of the services expired in March 2020.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Department of Environment and Climate Change — which now holds the Labour portfolio — wrote that the conciliation board "provides another mechanism by which the parties can review their respective positions and hopefully reach a resolution that balances the interest of both parties."
"The appointment of the board ensures that the parties are provided every opportunity to conclude an agreement and avoid a work stoppage."
Pay is at the centre of the dispute; Dawe says paramedics and emergency medical responders who are employed directly by the regional health authorities get a much better salary and much better benefits. He's been looking to close that gap.
"It's very unpleasant work conditions. These medics are working multiple 24-hour days," he said. "There's no overtime for them, there's no benefits for them. Realistically, God love them, they are in this because their heart is truly there to help people. But there's no incentive to draw people into this business or to keep people in this business, not in the private industry in this province."
The potential strike wouldn't bring all ambulance service to a halt. Dawe says his members could do that, but chose a job action plan that would affect only patient transfers and other secondary transfers.
Even so, Dawe says the Department of Health and Community Services has also started a process to recruit replacement paramedics in the event of a strike, which he says further undermines the union's efforts.
"We had some members that got really upset when the government did that, and talked about pulling all services. But luckily, cooler heads prevailed at the end of the day."
CBC News has requested interviews with Davis and Fewer.
Dawe said he and the Teamsters will participate in the conciliation board process but have no reason to believe anything will change. He predicts the union will once again be planning a strike vote in about a month.
"This all looks to me like a test of how resolved our members are," he said.