For those of us wondering whatever happened to the government Nova Scotians elected three months ago it was a rude reminder. After a sleepy political summer disturbed by few signs of consciousness, the slumbering McNeil government woke up in a grumpy mood last week and, with proclamation of Bill 148, again turned its ire on public sector workers.
Signing the proclamation came as no particular surprise after negotiations with the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) broke down a few weeks ago and the union asked for arbitration. In Trumpian terms, the Liberals have been “locked and loaded” in anticipation of such an impasse ever since Bill 148 was passed by the legislature almost two years ago. The bill, part of a string of assaults on collective bargaining rights of civil servants, imposed a three per cent increase over a four-year agreement and messed with long service awards. All it took was for a union to challenge the imposed framework by asking for arbitration, and the trigger would be pulled through proclamation.
It may be recalled that back in late December, 2015, passage of Bill 148 occurred at 7:45 in the morning after another of those all-night sittings of the House of Assembly that have become as much a part of the McNeil government’s repertoire as union bashing. Apparently the Liberals now believe that both tactics have been endorsed by Nova Scotians, claiming that achieving a majority in the recent election is sufficient mandate to bring the bill into force.
Any qualms about the significant reduction in that majority seem to have been overcome. Also of no apparent concern is the fact that eight of those Liberals who voted for Bill 148 back before Christmas 2015– including two cabinet ministers – were turfed by the voters on May 30th. But that doesn’t seem to matter to the survivors. Although the electorate may have spoken, only those four out of ten who voted Liberal were heard.
Leading the country
With proclamation of Bill 148 and the recent defeat of the Liberals in British Columbia the McNeil government can lay claim to top honors in the neoliberal “stripping public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights” sweepstakes. Indeed, they are becoming a pacesetter with Bill 148, officially dubbed the Public Service Sustainability Act. A new contender in the union-bashing race, the recently-elected Conservative government of Manitoba, brought in a similarly titled Public Service Sustainability Act bill two months ago, featuring an equally draconian wage pattern.
A fuller sense of how Nova Scotia stands can be had by visiting the website of the labour-sponsored Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights. The site lists 223 restrictive labour laws passed by Canadian governments going back over 35 years. Since coming to office with a phoney commitment to respect collective bargaining rights, the McNeil Liberals have carved out a prominent niche on that list. There have been 16 new entries since the beginning of 2014 – Nova Scotia has been responsible for six of them.
- First up were 500 home care workers legislated back to work in March 2014 by Bill 30, the Nova Scotia Essential Home Support Services Act, which required the workers’ unions and their employers to negotiate an essential services agreement prior to a strike or lockout.
- Bill 30 was followed a few days later by Bill 37, curtailing a nurses’ strike by extending the requirement for essential services agreements to another 35,000 public employees including nurses and hospital support staff.
These two pieces of essential services legislation at least had a plausible story line – they were enacted to head off strikes by home care workers and nurses, and were further justified by the government because all other provinces had such laws. But the next big blowup was over something that likely baffled many Nova Scotians while exposing the government’s anti-union bias.
The ostensible purpose of the Health Authorities Act was to streamline collective bargaining by slotting health care workers into four bargaining units, each unit represented by one of the existing unions. That seemed reasonable enough, but the hidden agenda was to reduce the membership and clout of one of those four unions, that is, the NSGEU. After much ado over a six-month period the government compromised, allowing health care unions to keep their membership while establishing four Councils of Unions as bargaining agents.
Finished with the health care unions, the Liberals turned to the universities with Bill 100, introduced in the spring of 2015. The legislation allows universities in financial trouble to suspend collective agreements and ban strikes. Next came the just-proclaimed Bill 148, followed last winter by the Teachers’ Professional Agreement and Classroom Improvement Act that imposed on teachers the wage and service award terms contained in Bill 148.
Six tough labour relations bills in three years is quite a feat for any government. How much of this blitzkrieg will survive legal challenge is now the multi-million dollar question.
Ransacking of the long service awards is reportedly saving the government about $40 million a year, but the move involved taking away benefits employees achieved through collective bargaining. Last November the Supreme Court of Canada, in a case involving British Columbia and its teachers, ruled that governments can’t take back through legislation something they agreed to at the bargaining table. So perhaps there should be an asterisk on a big chunk of the surplus the Liberals are so proud of.
The essential services legislation is also fraught with difficulty. Under Bills 30 and 37 unions are prevented from striking unless there is an essential services agreement in place. Agreeing on a definition of essential services could prove difficult. The Wall government in Saskatchewan brought in legislation with such a broad definition that the Supreme Court of Canada found it effectively removed the right to strike. The Saskatchewan government subsequently rewrote the legislation to meet the Supreme Court’s objections. It’s an open question whether Nova Scotia’s law, passed before the Supreme Court decision, would pass muster.
The McNeil Liberals’ heavy-handed approach to labour relations is not only standing out nationally, it is securing for them a dubious but distinctive place in Nova Scotia’s political history.
There have been some high profile battles between government and organized labour in this province’s recent past:
- The John Savage government of the mid-1990s imposed unpaid leave, a wage rollback and a three-year suspension of bargaining rights on public sector workers;
- The Hamm government imposed back-to-work legislation on paramedics (1999) and nurses (2001);
- In a move opposed by the McNeil-led Liberals, the minority Conservative government of Rodney MacDonald tried unsuccessfully in 2007 to remove the right to strike from health and community care workers;
- Even the Dexter government was forced to swallow hard and end a walkout by paramedics a few months before their defeat in the 2013 election.
But those episodes, spread over two decades and four administrations, pale by comparison with the current hardball Liberal approach to labour relations. With key elements still in play because of potential court rulings the issue will likely continue to fester into the future. Making the potential for strife even more certain is the sense of betrayal caused by the fact that, over six years in opposition under Stephen McNeil, the Liberals presented themselves as supporters of collective bargaining rights for health care workers and others. [i]
The president of the NSGEU raised eyebrows last week when he referred to McNeil as “a snake.” Going by the Oxford English Reference Dictionary (1996), “snake in the grass” (a treacherous person or secret enemy) may have been more precise, but the sentiment is understandable.
[i] For example, from Hansard, November 2007, here is McNeil, the former idealist, speaking against a Conservative government bill stripping health and community service workers of the right to strike. “There isn’t a single person who wants a strike, including those very health care workers you’re taking away the right from. What they want, though, is to have the right to sit down with the government and bargain in good faith and make sure that they have that tool to be able to not go to work… the easiest thing for me and this caucus to do would have been to support this government. I think it’s fair to say to the members who are here, who are the leaders in the union movement in the Province of Nova Scotia, they don’t vote, quite frankly, for me, and I think most of them would tell you that, nor do they vote, I would suggest, for the government. But this to me, quite frankly, is not about politics. When I asked to be the Leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party, I didn’t be ask to be Leader so we could divide Nova Scotians and take away their rights. I asked to be the Leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party so we could put forth good, constructive solutions to the issues facing Nova Scotians.”