ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Nurses threw copies of their collective agreement on the steps of the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature Tuesday as a strike or lockout in hospitals across the province appeared imminent.

The protest by hundreds of health providers began after talks between the Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses' Union and the province broke down Monday night. A work stoppage could begin Wednesday morning.

Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses' Union, attended the protest and accused Premier Danny Williams of forcing the nurses to accept a deal that would strip them of their collective bargaining rights.

"He's nothing more than a rich bully," Silas told the rally to raucous cheers.

Many in the crowd wielded signs that read: "Respect Our Union."

Union president Debbie Forward said she was disappointed in the breakdown in talks and accused the government of showing no flexibility on contract language issues.

She said the province has reiterated that the intent is to legislate nurses back to work with a template used for other contracts.

"Government is intent on punishing nurses rather than protecting health care and the people of this province," Forward said in a release early in the day.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Health Boards Association has advised the province's four health authorities to begin implementing their contingency plans in the event of a work stoppage.

Executive director John Peddle said regional health authorities will reduce their services to emergency and essential care only, to ensure a safe level of care to those patients.

The nurses' union had earlier rejected the government's final contract offer, saying it would allow the province to negotiate wages and incentives without the union's input.

The government has defended its offer, pointing out that it would boost the wages of nurses by 30 per cent over four years, making them among the highest paid east of Ontario.