N.S. brings in law to impose wage deal on 75,000 public workers
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, December 14, 2015 4:40PM AST
Last Updated Tuesday, December 15, 2015 8:29AM AST
HALIFAX -- Union leaders were quick to condemn sweeping labour legislation tabled Monday by the Nova Scotia government, saying the bill undermines collective bargaining for 75,000 public servants by seeking to impose wage settlements through the back door.
Finance Minister Randy Delorey said tough decisions had to be made to deal with the province's "vulnerable" finances, which he said are being dragged down by declining economic growth and a projected deficit that has increased by $119 million to $240 million since September.
Public sector wages make up just over half of the government's $10 billion in annual expenses. For every one percentage point increase in wages, expenses rise by $52 million, finance officials said.
Under the proposed Public Services Sustainability Act, the Liberal government would impose restrictions on wage increases, but Delorey said the bill won't be proclaimed law unless the results of collective bargaining threaten the government's fiscal objectives.
He declined to explain what would trigger proclamation.
"The government is not taking this step lightly," he said before tabling the legislation. "These tough choices are necessary."
The bill has been introduced to "encourage negotiations," the government said. But union leaders saw it differently.
"The government is showing that it is willing to do whatever it takes to put their plan forward," said Jason MacLean, spokesman for the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union -- the province's largest public sector union.
"Not only do they have the gun to our head, they have a round in the chamber."
Danny Cavanagh, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, issued a statement saying Bill 148 bypasses workers' rights to free collective bargaining.
Cavanagh said it's the federation's opinion that the act is contrary to a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling that found the right to collective bargaining was protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
John McCracken, spokesman for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, offered a blunt assessment: "This is a dark day for labour relations in Nova Scotia. We seem to have come up against a government ... that appears to be willing to thumb its nose at court rulings."
Shelley Morse, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, agreed.
"To bring in legislation and say, 'We won't proclaim it unless you do as we say,' that to me says they don't care about the process that is in place," she said. "It's obvious this Liberal government is against unions."
The act would apply to virtually every public servant in the province, except judges. It would also apply to all public service agencies and Crown corporations.
If the bill is proclaimed law, it would impose a two-year wage freeze, followed by a one-per-cent raise in the third year, 1.5 per cent at the start of the fourth year and 0.5 per cent at the end.
The financial package is the same as a deal recently rejected by the province's 9,000 teachers, which prompted the NSGEU to delay a ratification vote on a similar deal until mid-January.
All bargaining units would be covered by the act, except those that ratify collective agreements before the law takes effect. The province's medical residents and Crown attorneys have already ratified new contracts.
The bill would not suspend the process of arbitrated settlements, but it would impose limits on what an arbitrator could award in terms of wage increases.
The government says public sector unions would be able to negotiate other contractual matters, such as working conditions.
As well, Delorey said if unions and employers come up with any cost savings during contract talks, that money could be put towards a wage hike.
The last time the province tried to impose a ceiling on public sector wages was 1994. Other provinces and the federal government have used similar tactics, and most have been challenged in the courts, said Ray Larkin, a labour lawyer who has represented public sector unions in the past.
The Liberals have had a fractious relationship with public-sector unions since coming to power in 2013, which includes bringing in a law late last year that shrank the number of bargaining units for health workers from 50 to four.