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Updated: Tue, 01 Apr 2014 10:11:11 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Halifax nurses walk off job in illegal strike

Hundreds of nurses with the Capital District Health Authority walked off the job on Tuesday and marked to Province House in Halifax. Craig Paisley/CBC

Hundreds of nurses with the Capital District Health Authority walked off the job on Tuesday and marked to Province House in Halifax. Craig Paisley/CBC

Halifax nurses on an illegal strike spoke out today against a proposed essential services law at the Nova Scotia legislature.

The nurses started the illegal walkout around 7 a.m., the head of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union said. The nurses are speaking out in a bid to delay the bill from becoming a law. 

The nurses would be in a legal position to strike on Thursday, but walked out early Tuesday as the provincial government debated legislation that would curtail their ability to strike. 

If the government proposal becomes law, nurses and other health workers would first have to agree with management which positions were essential services and staff those positions before starting any strike action.

- Nurses' strike creates confusion for Halifax-area patients 

Joan Jessome said she did not know how many nurses have walked out. Nurses at Halifax's Capital District Health Authority are embroiled in a dispute with their employers about several issues, including nurses-to-patients ratios.

"As far as I know, workers still have the right to gather, the right to demonstrate and the right to fight back against any legislation that takes away their right," the NSGEU president said at about 7 a.m. Tuesday.

"We're going to continue on that path, and nurses are arriving. We're going to have that conversation with them this morning. There was no interest from the employer to bargain, and there was nothing that was going to hold them accountable, because they had the legislation committed to them in the back pocket."

Jessome said there will be emergency services in place during the job action. 

"There definitely, absolutely, will be an impact to patient care. But there's been an impact to patient care now for years," she said. "That's what the nurses have been talking about, and nobody was listening."

Nova ScotiaMLAs were still debating the McNeil government's essential service legislation early today. A vote on whether to delay the bill was defeated before 8 a.m.

The MLAs had been debating since midnight after a brief break. The debate is being livestreamed.

'Nobody there to care for the patients'

Chris Power, chief executive of the Capital District Health Authority, said nurses have called in sick or just not shown up for their Tuesday shifts. Entire units, including the unit that works with people who have addictions, have called in sick.

"We have nobody there to care for the patients, with the exception of management, so we're looking to see how we can move those patients to other places in the province," she said. "There's been a significant impact to our patient care this morning."

Power said many nurses had turned up for work. "We're very disappointed that Local 97 is advocating this illegal activity," she said. 

Power said Capital Health will contact patients to cancel any procedures that won't go ahead during the strike. In many cases, it depends on if the nurses turn up for work. The hospital has 120 surgeries scheduled for Tuesday. 

More than 2,300 registered nurses will be in a legal strike position on Thursday. It applies only to nurses represented by the NSGEU. That includes nurses at:

- The Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre (the city's main hospital).

- The Nova Scotia Hospital.

- The East Coast Forensic Hospital.

- Public Health Services.

Nurses at the IWK Health Centre, the Cobequid Community Health Centre and the Dartmouth General Hospital are not involved. 

The NSGEU's Twitter feed said early Tuesday that "we are out illegally at 7 a.m. unless you are a nurse who has been designated as an emergency services for your unit."

It added that members will meet at the Marriott Hotel in Halifax at 7 a.m. and then head to the legislature. 

The NDP opposes the legislation. "Stephen McNeil has botched negotiations with the nurses since the beginning," said party leader Maureen MacDonald. "This misguided legislation will make what was already a difficult situation much worse."

Premier Stephen McNeil said the legislation protects the right to strike, but in a limited fashion. 

"We're just doing what we think is right by patients and striking the balance for ensuring that we protect the workers' right to strike if they wish, but also ensuring that there are services in this province that are essential to Nova Scotians," he said Monday. 

The legislation could pass later this week or early next week. 

The back-to-work legislation also applies to other health care unions including those who work in seniors homes, paramedics, 911 operators and those working in community services. It doesn't take away the right to strike, but it severely limits the number of people who can walk off the job.

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