A number of Halifax-area nurses didn't show up to work Tuesday as tensions rose and their union president told a legislature committee a bill on essential services essentially takes away the right to strike.
"If you take something and you render it useless, you tell me what you've done to it?" Joan Jessome of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union asked the law amendments committee.
"You have taken away the right to strike."
Jessome said the government's move will drive nurses to seek employment in other provinces as it fails to resolve staffing problems.
"This legislation has done nothing to address the issues that they have raised in the workplace. The issues around patient safety."
The 2,400 nurses represented by the union can legally go on strike Thursday. The union wasn't able to say how many nurses didn't show up for work Tuesday.
The Capital District Health Authority referred to the walkout by some members of the union as an illegal strike that is disrupting services.
"Our emergency rooms are open. The union has also agreed to fully staff dialysis, cancer care, and intensive care units," it said in a statement on its website.
"However, many areas of care will have fewer registered nurses."
In the same statement, Capital Health CEO Chris Power called the union's move "dangerous."
"We have many more patients currently in the QEII (Health Sciences Centre) than we can safely care for without the staff who walked out," she said.
The nurses 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.
But the impact of a strike stretches beyond the city as its hospitals serve as a regional health centre.
Patients are treated at Halifax hospitals from across the Maritimes. Last week, Prince Edward Island began moving some patients back to their home province.
Outside the legislature Tuesday, nurses protested against the Essential Health and Community Services Act while some of their colleagues vented their frustration inside before the law amendments committee.
Karen Ferguson, a psychiatric nurse with 31 years of experience, agreed with Jessome's position that the legislation would drive younger nurses away in search of better working conditions.
"I will predict soon you will need a law so that it is illegal to leave Nova Scotia," Ferguson quipped to laughter from other union members.
"I will also predict that this will be the undoing of several political careers for a very long time."
The legislation would require unions and employers throughout the health-care sector to have an essential services agreement in place before strikes or lockouts start.
In addition to nurses, the bill would apply to paramedics, 911 operators, 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.
Members of the legislature debated the bill overnight, hours after the union filed its strike notice for Thursday.
Jessome said the legislation introduced by the province's Liberal government weighs collective bargaining in favour of employers.
The union and the health authority have been unable to come to an agreement despite the help of a mediator.
Late Monday night, Capital Health said mediated talks ended in an impasse. A spokesman for the health board said earlier Monday that some surgeries have already been cancelled and some patients transferred to hospitals outside the city as the strike deadline approaches.
The key sticking point in the dispute is a demand from the union to increase nurse-to-patient ratios, something it says would improve patient safety. The health authority has said there is no evidence that mandated ratios guarantee better safety.