HALIFAX — The union representing Nova Scotia’s 800 paramedics says it will take the weekend to mull its options after the rejection of a contract offer that starts another countdown to a possible strike or lockout.
© Jeff Harper - Metro Halifax
A paramedic working in front of the QEII hospital in Halifax.
Terry Chapman of Local 727 of the International Union of Operating Engineers said Friday that the vote against the deal reached with the help of a mediator on June 9 is a sign that the paramedics want to catch up to their counterparts in health care.
“The rejection was primarily based on a long-time frustration with working for less than parity,” said Chapman.
He said the union executive will seek advice from its legal counsel and members before deciding how to proceed, and it should be ready to release information on the course it is taking by Monday.
In the meantime, the union and the paramedics’ employer, Emergency Medical Care Inc., have agreed there won’t be a legal strike or lockout before July 5.
Thursday’s vote results marked the second time the paramedics rejected a deal, despite the fact it contained one of their key demands — a defined benefit pension plan. A defined benefit plan requires an employer to meet set retirement payments based on a formula that factors in an employee’s years of service and earnings, as opposed to a less lucrative defined contribution plan.
Premier Darrell Dexter’s government has been accused by the Progressive Conservatives of interfering in negotiations by making money available for the pension plan.
Chapman said he had no plans to resign because of the failure to get a deal.
“We’re looking at strategies and alternatives and until we have those formulated, I don’t want make anything that’s going to sound like a presumptive statement,” he said.
Larry Haiven, a labour relations expert at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, said the vote means paramedics believe that with an NDP government in power and an election on the horizon, the time is right to pressure for more concessions, especially on wages.
“In the eyes of the membership this is one of the best opportunities for all they’ve lost in the last 15 years. Can you think of a better time?” he asked.
Haiven said it isn’t unusual in labour relations for union members to reject deals reached by their leadership one or more times.
“Yes, there is a fracture between the union executive and the membership, but it’s not unusual, especially in health care,” said Haiven.
He said a similar situation developed during a health care dispute in 2001 when a number of health professionals represented by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees union twice rejected offers. That dispute led to the introduction of Bill 68, anti-strike legislation the Progressive Conservative government of John Hamm eventually withdrew in favour of an all-or nothing process known as final offer selection.
Haiven said another factor at play in the current dispute is the fact paramedics were late to trade unionism, having only formed a union after ambulance services were amalgamated in the mid-1990s. As a result, he said, they are behind other health care bargaining units and have been playing catch-up ever since.
“They’ve been steaming for 15 years and have been unable to catch up,” he said. “So even the province intervening and giving them a defined benefit pension plan was not enough to get a deal. Normal wage increases, which barely meet the cost of living, are not going to cut it.”