HALIFAX, N.S. – More than 7,000 workers in Nova Scotia’s rural hospitals and schools will go on strike Jan. 18 unless tentative agreements are reached before then, but the province’s deputy premier said Wednesday there’s plenty of time to reach a deal.
Frank Corbett, who is also minister responsible for the public service commission, reacted with what appeared to be relaxed confidence when asked if a strike could be averted – even though no talks are planned.
“Oh, yea … sometimes you can get a deal in an hour,” said Corbett, a former union leader with the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians. “Sometimes it takes more.”
All of the employees involved – about 4,100 hospital workers and 3,000 school support staff – work outside of the Halifax region and are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
Union leaders insisted Wednesday that the key issue is maintaining wage parity with workers in Halifax.
Wayne Thomas, spokesman for acute-care workers at 33 rural hospitals, said wage parity represents a line in the sand for his colleagues.
“For the last 10 years, we’ve had wage parity with Metro (Halifax),” he said. “Giving up what we think is the component that makes the system work is not something we’re prepared to do.”
He said paying rural workers less would lead to an exodus of health-care workers from the rural hinterland to Halifax and other provinces.
The province’s seven-month-old government is under intense pressure to maintain its good relations with a labour movement that has high expectations for Atlantic Canada’s first NDP government.
These contract talks are important because the resulting agreements will form a template for other public sector unions to follow.
The government has offered the rural employees a one per cent wage increase in each year of a two-year contract.
To maintain wage parity with their public sector colleagues in the Halifax area, the unions are seeking a 2.9 per cent increase in the first year of a three-year contract, followed by one per cent increases in the last two years, said union spokesman John McCracken.
Thomas, whose union represents most hospital workers, except nurses and doctors, said there is room to manoeuvre at the bargaining table.
“If we have room, it’s in the second and third year of a collective agreement,” he told a news conference at a hotel in suburban Dartmouth. “Anything other than parity on Day 1 destroys something that the health-care system depends on.”
Kathy MacLeod, the union’s school board co-ordinator, said she was “very optimistic” a deal could be reached before the deadline.
“I think there’s a resolve there to reach a tentative deal,” she said, adding that she liked what she’s heard so far from Corbett. “I just like to think he’s listening.”
MacLeod said it was unrealistic for rural school boards to promise to keep all schools open in the event of a strike.
“We know that’s not going to be a reality,” she said, noting that the union represents school bus drivers, teachers’ assistants, cleaners and cafeteria workers. “We know that they’ll only be able to maintain that for a short period.”
Danny Cavanagh, president of the union’s Nova Scotia wing, said CUPE was eager to get back to collective bargaining.
“We’re ready to bargain and we want a settlement,” he said. “The last thing we want is a strike.”
Corbett said those bargaining on behalf of the hospital workers must first sort out their priorities because there are about 30 outstanding issues on the table.
“There doesn’t seem to be anything coming off the table,” he said, adding that the union had to “meld those conditions down.”