About 90 operations were postponed after nurses in Nova Scotia went on a wildcat walkout over legislation they say would take away their right to strike.
The provincial labour board ended Tuesday's action with an order to return to work.
The Liberal government is racing the clock to pass the Essential Health and Community Services Act before Thursday. That's when the 2,400 nurses who are members of the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union will be in a legal position to strike.
The bill was introduced late Monday night and debated into the early hours of the morning. With freezing rain pelting down in Halifax on Tuesday, more than 100 nurses, striking illegally, picketed in front of the House of Assembly.
The bill would require employers and unions to negotiate how many workers would stay on the job before a strike or lockout could happen. Unions say the essential services provisions would allow the province to dictate terms and erode the effectiveness of a strike.
Just a few blocks away from the legislature, Capital District Health Authority, which operates the Halifax hospitals where the nurses work, was scrambling to deal with the shortage and postponed nearly 90 operations. It is making contingency plans and winding down services in anticipation of a strike on Thursday.
Joan Jessome, president of the NSGEU, told her members to comply with the labour board's order – but declared the fight is not over. Nurses not scheduled to work will picket the legislature on Wednesday.
She said about 300 nurses went out illegally – but those in areas such as cancer care, emergency and dialysis units and caring for veterans were at work.
The nurses have been in contract talks with Capital Health for months. Their dispute is not about wages but ratios of nurses to patients. The nurses say low staffing levels and inflexible scheduling make conditions unsafe for patients. Ms. Jessome says about 100 more nurses are needed.
Mediation between the union and Capital Health broke down on Monday night.
Provincial Labour Minister Kelly Regan, who is responsible for the bill and has had three hours of sleep since Sunday, told The Globe and Mail that Nova Scotia is the only province in the country not to have some form of essential services legislation.
"Ours is actually one of the more modest proposals compared to some of the other provinces," she said. "We looked at really protecting Nova Scotians' health and safety."
Union leaders call the bill "diabolical" and "heavy-handed."
It covers not just the nurses but 32,000 health care workers, including paramedics, homecare workers and 911 operators.
The Nova Scotia Nurses Union represents another 6,700 nurses in the province. NSNU president Janet Hazelton said Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick have similar legislation, and it takes about four or five months of negotiations before bargaining even begins.
She said nursing leaders have to be pulled off their jobs to negotiate the numbers, which she calls an "incredible waste of precious nursing hours." Her union has not had a strike since 1977.
Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, said a patchwork of legislation, regulations and policies across the country governs how many nurses can strike, or even if they can go out. For example, she said, nurses in Ontario hospitals do not have the right to strike, but those working outside hospitals have full striking rights with no essential services law.
"Every province different and every sector of health care is also different," she said.