© ADAM MACINNIS – THE NEWS
Local paramedics gathered in New Glasgow for an information picket.
THE CANADIAN PRESS
HALIFAX – The Nova Scotia government stepped in to avert a possible strike by the province’s paramedics Friday, saying it felt it had to intervene in the labour dispute to ensure the continuation of emergency response services.
NDP Labour Minister Frank Corbett said the government introduced legislation to send the matter to binding arbitration because it sees no prospect of a deal between the employer and the union that represents the 800 paramedics, who are in a legal strike position at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.
“There was no compromise, that’s why we’re here today,” Corbett told a news conference prior to tabling the legislation.
“What I really have to think of here is the health and safety of Nova Scotians.”
Union members have repeatedly rejected offers from their employer, Emergency Medical Care, with 73 per cent of them recently voting against a deal that would have given them a defined benefit pension plan — one of their key demands.
The legislature was recalled Friday to debate the bill, which would see an arbitrator ask for a final offer from both parties, hear their arguments and select one of the offers. The union and the employer would have 30 days to agree on an arbitrator, who would then have 90 days to make a decision.
If both sides can’t agree on an arbitrator, they would submit their preferences to Nova Scotia’s chief justice, who would have 15 days to make a selection.
Terry Chapman, the chief negotiator for the union, said the legislation takes away their collective bargaining rights.
“It doesn’t sit well with us as a trade union that either government or any aspect of government would take it upon themselves (to) drastically interfere with the process,” Chapman said outside the legislature as dozens of paramedics protested.
Liberal Opposition Leader Stephen McNeil agreed that the measure takes away the paramedics’ right to strike.
“Let’s be clear, it’s an anti-strike bill,” McNeil said in the house of assembly, where the faint sound of cries and car horns from the rally outside could be heard.
“There has been no work stoppage. We’re not forcing paramedics back to work. What we’re doing is taking away the right to strike from paramedics.”
Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said he backs the move to send the dispute to binding arbitration.
“We have a bill that will keep the paramedics on the job and provides for a fair settlement process for them and we’re here to support it,” Baillie said. “No games.”
Stacey Brown, a spokeswoman for Emergency Medical Care, said in an email that the company was still preparing contingency plans for a possible strike “until we receive word otherwise.”
In addition to the defined benefit pension plan, the paramedics say they are seeking better wages — a 15 per cent pay hike over three years rather than the 11.1 per cent over almost five years that was offered in the tentative agreement.
The contract expired in March 2011. Both sides have been negotiating since September 2011 and a tentative agreement was reached in January with the help of a conciliator, but the paramedics rejected it. Subsequent tentative deals reached in April and June were also rejected.