Compulsory arbitration no substitute for right to strike in health care: report

October 28, 2008

HALIFAX, October 28, 2008-Two specialists in industrial relations insist that compulsory arbitration is not a good substitute for the right to use strikes as a last resort if collective bargaining fails, despite what government says.

Removing the right to strike and replacing it with compulsory arbitration will only worsen some of the most intractable problems in provincial health human resources today, according to a study released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Nova Scotia,. According to the reports’ authors Judy and Larry Haiven (associate professors at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University), “if arbitration works at all it is only where the problems are simple and where marginal adjustments are needed. Arbitration is simply not up to the task of addressing big problems, such as those related to recruitment, retention and morale of health care workers.”

According to Larry Haiven, “Serious problem-solving is not possible unless the threat of strike is available to healthcare unions: For rectification costs serious money. Take away the right to strike and governments and employers will not have to spend it. As a result, inequities will continue, as will the crisis of recruitment, retention and morale. A shortage of health care workers willing to remain in the province is a serious threat to the system. Effective health care, hence, will be compromised.” Proponents of the strike ban assume that a third party can come up with solutions that will solve those problems. Rather, counters Larry Haiven “Arbitration will not solve complex and costly problems and will instead give the parties, and especially managements and governments, an excuse to put off dealing with difficult issues until it is too late.”

This report is the third in a CCPA-NS series by the Haivens in response to a Nova Scotia government initiative to outlaw strikes in health care and community services.

To consider just how good arbitration is at resolving disputes, this report, examines three situations in health care where the issues are thorny, stubborn and resistant to cheap solutions,.

According to Judy Haiven, “Without the right to strike, it is highly unlikely that the unions would have been able to get the employers to rectify a severe pension plan imbalance in 2006. This was a disagreement for which arbitration would have been an inadequate or ineffective answer.”

Binding arbitration is a blunt instrument that has proven and will prove especially inadequate for a key group of Nova Scotia health employees: ‘technologists and therapists.’. This group, which includes laboratory technologists, respiratory therapists, and social workers, faces severe problems of recruitment, retention and morale that demand mutual discussion and careful negotiation between labour and management.

Another important group of health care professionals that has fared and will fare poorly from arbitration is ambulance service employees, especially the three main categories of paramedic. Though the duties and skills of ambulance workers have rapidly increased, their pay has lagged seriously behind all of the other groups to whom they might compare themselves and to their counterparts in other provinces. Their compensation needs to rise to levels more in keeping with the market. Currently locked in a bargaining dispute with their employer, their members are especially frustrated.

The report concludes that third-party intervention has a long history of working in some instances, but it is not a blanket solution to labour disputes. The authors recommend that arbitration only be used under certain conditions: when it is voluntary, nonbinding and temporary and when it is used for more marginal issues.


The study is the third of three reports. The first report, “A Tale of Two Provinces” (October 18, 2007) compared Nova Scotia (where acute health care strikes are still legal) to Alberta (where they have been banned) over the past 24 years, and showed that Alberta had fifteen times as much strike activity. The second report, “Health Care Strikes: ‘Pulling the Red Cord,” (November 22, 2007) argued that if Nova Scotia health care is going to be delivered under management by stress, then the right to strike for health care workers is analogous to the power to “pull the red cord” available to workers in many production facilities. Without this power, the rest of us may not find out about serious deficiencies in the health care system until failures occur.


For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact CCPA-NS Director Christine Saulnier at 902-477-1252.

The report, Is Compulsory Arbitration a Good Substitute for the Right to Strike in Health Care? is available for download below.