HALIFAX -- Nova Scotia's finance minister told public-sector unions Tuesday that provincial government employers will be instructed to negotiate five-year deals with wage increases that don't require tax hikes.
Randy Delorey said he held the meeting with 12 unions and the association representing Crown attorneys in an effort to outline the Liberal government's position before it sits down for contract talks this fall.
After the meeting, Delorey said he informed unions that limited wage increases are on the table over the five years and he's looking for union suggestions on program savings that could then be used for additional wages for the 50,000 workers, who range from nurses to civil servants.
Delorey declined to indicate what percentage wage increases provincial employers would be authorized to put forward.
But any increases will have to conform with the province's fiscal plan to balance the budget by 2017-18 and must not require tax increases, he said.
"It (the fiscal plan) does include the provisions for the employers to take to the table and negotiate increases over the life of the contract," Delorey said.
"What I indicated is we wouldn't be increasing taxes and ... the labour process and collective agreement process needs to fall within that framework."
Delorey gave a presentation to union leaders that reminded them of the province's $15-billion debt, saying that even a one-per-cent increase to public-sector salaries would add $52 million a year to expenses.
Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said the government is essentially telling unions it has little interest in collective bargaining.
The leader of the province's largest public-sector union said she didn't receive a clear answer from Delorey on whether he will bring in legislation imposing wages and benefits.
"There's no opportunity now for us to negotiate at the bargaining table when we've been directed to have a five-year deal, we've been directed there's no more money, and if we want to find anything we take it out of what's there," she said.
Jessome said she interpreted Delorey's comments to mean there will be no wage increases without the union members agreeing to reduced benefits.
Delorey denied that interpretation, saying he's asking unions to come up with ideas for cost savings in programs, not to look to reduce their members' benefits.
He also said the province is committed to working with the collective bargaining process and it's too early to speak about legislating contracts for the workers.
Danny Cavanagh, president of CUPE Nova Scotia, said he believes the province wasn't making a sincere attempt to find a less confrontational approach to collective bargaining.
Cavanaugh, whose union represent 15,000 public-sector workers in the province, said he believes the meeting was a public relations exercise.
"They want to come out of this with sound bites and come out in the spring and say 'We took the unions on,' " he said.
Lana Payne, the Atlantic regional director of Unifor, said they went to the meeting "hoping for a new approach characterized by respect and co-operation, but what we heard was a reflection of the disrespect for the workers of this province."
She accused the government of "stopping the conversation before it even begins, at a time when there is urgent need in Nova Scotia to protect our public services and ensure the workers are respected."