There are lots of topics packed into the 15-minute eulogy for Stephen McNeil’s government featured in the virtual Liberal leadership convention package posted on You Tube last weekend. The video includes accolades to universal pre-primary, tax cuts, organ donation legislation as well as immigration and export growth. But relations with unionized public employees, the centrepiece of McNeil’s government, is the main theme of the propaganda piece.
Ironically, the issue is never spelled out. Instead, viewers are asked to decipher – with help from a couple of still shots and superimposed text – the meaning behind a lot of talk about “tough decisions.”
Convention co-chair Kristin Hines sets the tone in introducing the mini-documentary, referring to many difficult decisions, some of them politically unpopular. Next comes a clip from McNeil himself, declaring during one of his recent farewell addresses that “it hasn’t always been easy, our government has made some tough decisions in the past seven years.”
Although there’s a brief reference to stopping the pollution of Boat Harbour – something agreed to by all parties in the legislature – the video soon makes clear that “tough decisions” are really about relations between the government and its unionized employees.
As Finance Minister Karen Casey talks about strong leadership, setting priorities and the fact “you can’t say yes to everything” there are still shots and text of demonstrations at the legislature. One, from September 2014 is headlined: “Union frustration with Nova Scotia health-labour law boils over outside legislature.” Another, from 2017, is captioned: “Nova Scotia teachers vote yes for illegal strike action, union wants meeting with the government.”
Then it’s back to a clip of McNeil, protesting too much before some unseen audience:
“We weren’t looking to be patted on the back to say that we’ve slayed the dragon of labour because that’s not at all what we’ve done, that’s not at all what we intended to do, it was never part of our conversation, the conversation was what’s fair for Nova Scotians, what’s our ability to pay.”
And finally, Karen Casey again, to tell viewers that “labour unrest” led to “difficult times” but “when you know you have done the right thing and you know that many people are going to benefit from the decisions that you make you can stand tall and weather the storm.”
As discussed here, “standing tall” for the McNeil Liberals has meant a basket of restrictive labour laws affecting the public sector, enacted despite publication of a pre-2013 election open letter to union members supportive of collective bargaining and workers’ rights.
The Liberals started by forcing home care workers back to work, curtailing the right to strike with essential services legislation and re-arranging collective bargaining in the health sector. They followed up in 2015 with Bill 148, imposing a wage settlement and wiping out negotiated retirement benefits for public servants. Bill 75, pushed through in 2017, brought teachers under the same regime. The constitutional validity of both has been challenged in court, with precedents from British Columbia and Manitoba suggesting the unions have a good case.
All of that legislation was passed before the 2017 election when the Liberals lost eight seats and barely retained their majority. But if they believed their hard-nosed approach to collective bargaining cost them at the polls it was not evident in the fall of 2019 when they employed the same bullying tactics against crown prosecutors.
The Liberals brought in Bill 203, doubling down on the notion that it’s OK for the government to break its word to get its way at the bargaining table. The bill reneged on a 2016 agreement, through which the crowns accepted a near-zero wage increase over four years in return for restoration of binding arbitration in future contracts. As a cynical quid pro quo for going back on its word, the McNeil government offered crowns the right to strike, a meaningless prerogative given provisions of the essential services legislation the Liberals had brought in during their first year in power.
Aside from that intense but brief confrontation with the crowns that took place over a year ago, most of the Liberals’ anti-labour record is in the relatively distant past, before the 2017 election. This raises the question why now? Why such an emphasis on standing up to labour in the party’s tribute to the McNeil years?
The video seems to want to make the case that “tough decisions” imposed on public sector workers made possible the good things the McNeil government achieved – things like universal pre-primary and lower income taxes. There’s an element of truth to that – the government has frequently claimed that every one per cent of a wage increase denied is worth $52 million to be spent on something else. But as discussed here, revenue windfalls from the offshore and increased federal transfers have contributed more than that to the province’s pre-COVID fiscal wellbeing.
And if the goal is to convince public sector workers and their supporters that having their rights trampled is worth the sacrifice, it would be helpful if the government’s spending record was better. Even the most altruistic may be bothered by moves like the $70 million in corporate tax cuts and the tens of millions wasted on the ferry to Yarmouth.
Another possibility is that the propaganda piece is more about the future than it is about defending the past. With contract negotiations with health care workers and an election looming, it’s a call to arms to the Liberal party and its new leader to stay the course as the party that will do whatever it takes to impose its will on public sector workers. It makes the prospect of a fundamental reset under new leadership highly unlikely.