Strike mandate vote begins this week for Nova Scotia health-care workers

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Health-care workers across the province begin voting this week on a strike mandate, a move that could mean hundreds of staff who deal with patients at the IWK Health Centre, other than doctors and nurses, could walk off the job as early as next month.

Legislation passed by the McNeil government prevents health-care unions from taking job action until essential service agreements are in place to outline what employees and how many must remain at work during a walkout.

While those numbers have not been settled for employees of the Nova Scotia Health Authority, they were recently finalized for the IWK Health Centre, the Atlantic region's largest children's hospital.

With a few minor issues remaining to be settled by the Nova Scotia Labour Board by the end of this month, it means by early May workers at the IWK could walk off the job if a new collective agreement isn't reached.

Preparing for labour disruption

NSGEU president Jason MacLean, whose union represents 889 employees at the IWK, said the two sides have agreed at requiring 35 per cent of employees to attend work during a strike.

Professionals involved in the vote include lab techs, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, respiratory therapists, child-life workers and social workers.

No one from the IWK would do an interview, but in a statement hospital spokesperson Nick Cox said the plan "ensures that our most critical services would continue, while elective services would be reduced."

"Our focus was to ensure that we can maintain essential-health services for our patients and families, in the event of any future labour disruption," Cox said in an email.

"Having this plan allows the IWK to better predict and prepare for the impact of a labour disruption on the normal business of the health centre."

Hoping to set a precedent

Health-care workers at the IWK and Nova Scotia Health Authority have been without a contract for four years. Major sticking points, according to the NSGEU, include changes to sick benefits, the power of management to move employees from one location to another, and scheduling.

The health-care bargaining unit at the IWK accounts for about 30 per cent of total staff at the children's hospital.

NSGEU members who work for either the IWK or Nova Scotia Health Authority will vote on a strike mandate electronically next week, from April 23-27. Health-care workers represented by CUPE, meanwhile, vote between April 16 and 26. Employees represented by Unifor will also vote next week.

MacLean said he believes getting the essential-services agreement with the IWK will help set a precedent for doing the same with the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

While they aren't identical, there are enough similarities for MacLean to believe it will give them another case to take to the Labour Board.

MacLean said the preference is to get a deal at the table, and while there are three more conciliation dates set for May 2-4, he said he will not accept an offer from the employer for additional days beyond what's already scheduled.

"What I'm saying to them is, 'No, we're not putting more dates. You come and do some real bargaining. You haven't been doing it for the last year and a half.' It's time to put finality to a lot of the clauses that are outstanding."

Labour Relations Minister Mark Furey was not available for an interview Monday. In a statement, he said he was pleased the union and IWK could reach an agreement on staffing.

"We look forward to the Labour Board ruling and the complete essential services agreement. Having an essential-services agreement in place will ensure that Nova Scotians continue to receive essential health-care services they need."