Thankfully we have avoided a strike at Capital Health. But in the two weeks leading up to the mediated settlement, Nova Scotians went through hell. A strike at Capital Health doesn’t just impact citizens in Metro, it impacts services and treatments of citizens from one end of the province to another. It was chaos.
In numerous interviews and opinion pieces the Minister of Health and Wellness has resisted any change to Nova Scotia’s health care administrative structure because she wants to avoid chaos. Well, the last two weeks in Halifax were a very public example of the type of chaos which already exists in our health care system. Patients and patient families have long known of and experienced the chaos and frustration of our system, but it takes the publicity of a strike to raise its visibility.
This is the second time Capital Health has prepared for a strike situation in less than a year.
Settling this recent contract illustrates the folly of maintaining 10 health authorities in this province. We negotiate one contract for teachers. But we negotiate 50 contracts for nurses and another 50 contracts for other health care workers. So with these two contracts settled we have 98 to go.
Anyone who thinks harmony has returned to the system is sadly mistaken. The precedent set by the two recent Capital Health arbitrated contracts means all other unionized bargaining units in the province will expect the same kind of settlement. Why should they expect anything less? We talk about wage parity: paying men and women the same amount for work of equal value. Why not geographic parity for work of equal value?
Had we a coordinated health care system in this province with one health authority negotiating with two bargaining units we might have labour peace, patients wouldn’t be subjected to the hell that those scheduled for care in Halifax endured, and we might have saved money by negotiating one lower pay raise across the province that is closer to the Dexter government’s one percent target. But now, thanks to the failure in Halifax to achieve negotiated versus arbitrated settlements, we are on track to pay more as various contracts come due.
There should be a move to work for the greater good, but when you have 10 separate health authorities fighting to protect their individual budgets we ensure constant labour turmoil. It’s not the job of Capital Health’s negotiators to think of the impact of their positions on the province’s nine other health authorities, but the reality is that what happens to one, sets the standard for the others.
As the strike deadline grew closer, so did calls to bring in legislation to remove the right of health care workers to strike. Does that make for better employee relations? I’ve never belonged to a union, my career was in management, but this seems a one-sided solution. Taking away the right of these workers to strike is akin to disenfranchising them, like taking away their right to vote. And why is the solution always placed on the back of the workers and not management? Why do we act as if health care administrators are infallible?
Why can’t the Legislature institute a system of incentives to ensure management works more effectively, efficiently and empathically in resolving public sector labour disputes? Rather than punish the lowest paid, by removing their rights to withhold their labour, incentivize management to act more quickly by imposing financial implications on them if they fail to deliver 100% of essential public services, like health care. As it stands now, a health care strike impacts the workers (who go without pay), the patients (who go without treatments), but leaves the administrators unscathed. Administrators may be inconvenienced in their daily workload, but they don’t experience any loss of income or perks. Why?
Using recent nursing contracts as an example, two-year contracts in this province have been taking 18-to-24 months to negotiate. Is that really necessary? Is that in anyone’s interest? Let’s incentivize administrators by tying their incomes to performance targets and harmonious delivery of essential public services. This could be a model for all public sector contacts and bargaining units in Canada. If executives find that unacceptable they are free, as anyone is, to find employment conditions more to their liking. But it is not in the public interest to suffer through never-ending contract negotiations and disputes. Our current system diverts too much time, attention and resources away from actual delivery of health care. If ever there was time for a change, it is now.