Strike ban means less warning of health care system failures – new CCPA study

November 22, 2007

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government's proposal to ban strikes in health care and community services would remove one of the key mechanisms workers have to warn of system failures, according to a study released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "Health Care Strikes: Pulling the Red Cord” looks at the impact of strikes and strike threats on health care and concludes that they are far from intolerable or unmanageable.

According to the report"s authors Judy and Larry Haiven, (associate professors at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University), “Strikes in health care are not the unacceptable events that government and employers portray them to be. Strikes and strike threats are part of the continuum of human resource management”

According to Larry Haiven, “This study shows that the proposal to ban strikes in health care and community services could make matters worse in an already stretched system. Front-line workers know best when the system is being pushed beyond tolerable limits and they can signal this by threatening a legal strike. If they don’t have the strike option the rest of us may not find out about the strained system until it is too late.”

Government and health employers claim that the health care system has such “tight tolerances” that strikes are unacceptable. “Running a system this way,” the authors state, is “'management by stress,’ an approach that jeopardizes our ability to effectively manage health care and cope with the uncertainties that are an inevitable part of health care delivery.”

Proponents of the strike ban assume that strikes are total withdrawals of labour. But, in fact, counters Judy Haiven, “all strikes include the provision of emergency services by the unions involved as was the case in the IWK dispute last April. When a strike is illegal, the two sides often do not cooperate on critical issues that ensure the provision of emergency services, protocols that are clearly outlined during a legal strike.”

The report questions how disruptive labour disputes are to the health care system. Says Larry Haiven, “It’s far better for governments to acknowledge that strikes in health care are a fact of life and to use that as a basis for cooperation between unions and employers. This will help ensure that these events are not only manageable but well-managed and limit disruptions for patients.”

The authors recommend that Nova Scotia treat the problem of labour relations in health care with the patience it deserves. “In a province where health care resources are stretched,” say Larry Haiven, “there is no quick fix. There is no better alternative to free collective bargaining. And in the end, it contributes to less conflict and better outcomes.”

The study is the second of three reports. The first report, “A Tale of Two Provinces” (October 18) 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 third report (forthcoming) evaluates binding arbitration as a solution.


For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact CCPA-NS Director Christine Saulnier at 902-477-1252. “Health Care Strikes: Pulling the Red Cord” is available at

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