HALIFAX -- Nova Scotia's nurses union is raising the spectre of hospital units being shut because of discontent over the province's decision to impose a labour bill on 75,000 public sector workers.
Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union, said the lack of respect the Liberal government has displayed to public sector workers is worrisome and could impact services.
"Nurses and other health care workers make decisions every single day to go in and work overtime. But if they feel a total lack of respect from their employer and from this government, they'll stop taking extra shifts," she said.
Hazelton was among the leaders of seven labour groups who said Wednesday they want to be added as participants to a legal proceeding with the province over Bill 148, the Public Services Sustainability Act.
In 2001, nurses threatened mass resignations and a strike after the government introduced legislation that would remove their right to strike and allow cabinet to set contract terms.
But Hazelton said Wednesday nurses wouldn't have to resign to cripple the health care system.
"They just have to say 'I'm not coming in tonight,"' she said. "Our health care system relies on a lot of people agreeing to work overtime shifts."
Hazelton added: "I'm not saying this as a threat. They'd have to close units. The more you keep taking things from people and showing a lack of respect for their union, the more disappointed and the less likely people will want to help you out in a crunch."
The Nova Scotia government last month proclaimed Bill 148 -- which enforces a wage package on civil servants and scuttles a retirement bonus -- and referred a portion of the new law to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal for constitutional review.
The labour groups, including the Nova Scotia Nurses Union, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and the provincial government employees union, said they will apply to be added as parties to the proceedings to ensure employees' interests are represented in court.
The act sets a wage pattern of three per cent over four years that allows increases of one per cent in the third year of the contract, followed by 1.5 per cent in the fourth year and 0.5 per cent on the final day of the package. It also freezes a retirement allowance as of April 1, 2015.
"The unions believe that these provisions are a breach of the constitution. The only way they can make that argument in the court of appeal is to be there," said Gail Gatchalian, a lawyer working on behalf of the unions.
If the request for party status is turned down, she said the unions can apply to be added as interveners.
While the province only referred the wage package for review, Gatchalian said the unions question the constitutionality of the entire legislation.
Labour Minister Mark Furey dismissed the assertion that the government "cherry picked" sections of the act to send for constitutional review.
Instead, he said the province has asked the courts to rule on the central question of who has the authority to spend taxpayers money.
"Is it the elected government of the people or is it an independent arbitrator who is not accountable to taxpayers?" he said. "We took the steps to proclaim the bill because we believe that an arbitrator unaccountable to Nova Scotians could not be and should not be the determining factor in how taxpayers money is spent. We believe that is a responsibility of government."
Although no job actions are currently planned, Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union president Jason MacLean said workers will fight the "ungodly" bill.
"What we're looking at today is all of labour getting together and fighting this head on," he said. "This government is repeating mistakes of the past. Workers of this province have proven that they will not stand to be abused."
Nova Scotia Federation of Labour president Danny Cavanagh said there is a misconception that public sector workers have "gold-plated pensions" and "extreme wages."
He said the government has taken a "divide and conquer" approach to workers, which is driving a wedge between union and non-union Nova Scotians.
"It's divisive," Cavanagh said. "Everyone deserves to have a pension and retire with dignity."