Halifax nurses swap surgical masks for picket signs as expected strike begins

The Canadian Press
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HALIFAX – Nurses in Halifax walked off the job Thursday as the Nova Scotia government prepared to push a law through the legislature to end the strike.

Striking nurses protest outside the Halifax Infirmary in Halifax on Thursday, April 3, 2014. The nurses are on a legal strike that the provincial government intends to shut down with essential services legislation as early as Friday.

Dozens of nurses holding picket signs marched outside the main doors of the Halifax Infirmary. Drivers honked their car horns as they passed by the hospital near the city’s downtown in support of the strikers.

The strike affects services at a handful of hospitals and health centres in the city, but its impact has already been felt across the Maritimes.

The hospitals provide medical treatment to people in the three Maritime provinces and some patients have already been transferred to other health districts in the region.

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, says she expects the strike to last about 30 hours.

A few hundred of the 2,400 nurses represented by the union staged a wildcat walkout Tuesday that forced the cancellation of dozens of surgeries.

They were protesting against an essential services bill introduced by the province’s Liberal government, which would end the strike when it is passed by the legislature in a vote that’s expected Friday.

Jessome said Wednesday the union will respect the law.

“When the legislation passes, we will go back to work,” she said.

The union is demanding higher staffing levels as a way to improve patient safety. The Capital District Health Authority says the demand for nurse-to-patient ratios won’t work because it is too inflexible and there is no evidence it would improve safety.

The union and the health authority have agreed to maintain full staffing levels for emergency rooms and units offering dialysis, cancer care and intensive care. But Capital Health CEO Chris Power said Wednesday many other services won’t have enough nurses to provide proper emergency care.

As an example, she cited the surgery unit for people with brain tumours and brain injuries, saying there won’t be enough nurses to handle an emergency. Power said the same was true of the coronary care unit, which is full of ill patients but will have 70 per cent of it regular nursing staff.

The hospital that offers long-term care for veterans will have 66 per cent of its regular nursing staff on duty, she said.

“These people live there and require our nurses to care for them,” Power said “We will use every effort to provide the best care we can … but our patients and the provincial health-care system will be at risk.”

Dr. Patrick Ward, the authority’s chief of critical care, gave a more ominous warning.

“Is is possible that someone can be hurt?” he asked. “The answer to that would be yes.”

Jessome said that up to 60 per cent of the union’s members in Local 97 will be working Thursday.

On Wednesday, hospitals in the city handled only emergency cases and outpatient surgery. About two dozen more serious procedures were cancelled, even though the facilities were fully staffed.

Premier Stephen McNeil has said the new law is needed because there have been three labour disruptions in the health-care sector within seven months.

McNeil has said the law would not take away a union’s right to strike because that option remains open once essential staffing levels have been negotiated. The nurses’ union says such deals can take up to six months to reach, effectively undermining the leverage of a strike.

The legislation would also allow parties to request conciliation or mediation to help negotiate an essential services agreement. If they can’t agree, either party could apply to the Nova Scotia Labour Board.

The law would apply to nurses, paramedics, ambulance dispatchers, hospital employees and people who work in homes for seniors, youth and people with disabilities. In all, about 35,000 to 40,000 workers would be covered by the law.

The nurses in Local 97 primarily work at four places in the Halifax area: the QEII Health Sciences Centre, Nova Scotia Hospital, East Coast Forensic Hospital and Public Health Services. The region’s largest children’s hospital, the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, has nurses from another union.

Organizations: Nova Scotia Government, General Employees Union, Capital District Health Authority Nova Scotia Labour Board QEII Health Sciences Centre Nova Scotia Hospital East Coast Forensic Hospital Public Health Services IWK Health Centre

Geographic location: Halifax, Maritime

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Recent comments

  • Toby150
    April 03, 2014 - 11:51

    The nurses say that they want a certain nurse to patient ratio. Working in the health care sector, when staff call in sick you are not always able to replace the staff. Either they do not answer their phone or in the case of some RNs they say they have had a few drinks so they are not allowed to work. So the question is if they do not have the required staff does the union want the hospitals to send the patients home. Also were are the additional nurses coming from as they do not appear to want to work in Nova Scotia after they finish university. Let me answer that question as the union would. Pay the RNs more money. Which is always what uni0ns want