Last evening, I was featured on Global TV News — fortunate to headline the top story of the day. The subject was the Province of Nova Scotia’s relationships with its public sector unions. The reporter did a competent job on the matter, although mislabeling me an “expert” in labour law. Admittedly, I possess over a decade of labour law experience, representing predominantly public sector unions in the United States. However, I have never been qualified as an “expert,” and the label came as a bit of a surprise. The only area of law where I have been consulted as an “expert” is in the field of Constitutional Law, which I taught for over a decade in the United States.
Notwithstanding the above qualification, I thought that I would provide a bit more perspective on the sound bytes coming out the TV coverage. Two days ago, the governing political party in Nova Scotia, the Liberal Party, invited its public sector labour union leaders for a ‘sit down’ discussion regarding upcoming, anticipated labour contract negotiations — also called “collective bargaining negotiations.” The unions came to the meeting with trepidation — this particular provincial government has distinguished itself in the past year for engaging in questionable tactics including, most notably: (1) attempting to arbitrarily reorganize the health care union membership away from their present bargaining units — a likely violation of the right to association guaranteed under Canada’s Charter of Rights; (2) firing the arbitrator selected to rule upon the impasse that arose from the Province’s perceived inability to negotiate in good faith with its health care unions; and (3) expanding the scope of its governmental powers to prevent union reaction, i.e., striking. Admittedly, removing oneself from the politics surrounding the matter, it seems like a good idea to reorganize the health care workers into fewer overall bargaining units. However, it is never good public policy or politics to unconstitutionally and arbitrarily plot such reorganization; nor, is it effective policy making to attempt to undermine real collective bargaining negotiation.
This Province relies on its unions — it is in active competition versus other provinces for these trained professionals. These trained professionals — like everyone else in society — deserve good living wages and benefits, alongside other workplace protections. Indeed, what is notable about unions is that they deliver results for workers in a way that should be commonplace for all workers. What I have observed from my experience in the United States is that government — especially when adopting austerity policies — often mistakenly target its workers, rather than making politically courageous decisions on taxation, other methods for collection of revenue or better spending policies (e.g., not dumping millions of dollars into a private company running a ferry; not privatizing utility services, etc.) to further bolster public funds and spending.
I am not attempting to be political. I am a lawyer who has long-represented labour interests; I have always done so in a manner designed to, in good-faith, establish common ground between the parties. Sadly, in many cases, it was the obstinacy and politics of public officials that undermined the ability to deliver fair bargains to both sides. I will state, as an aside, that the Liberal Party in Nova Scotia has adopted several policies with which I can, as a citizen, agree. Labour relations policy is simply not one of those items.
As I indicated during my interview, I anticipate that, based upon the recent history of failed negotiations, the sides will be unable to come to agreement during collective bargaining. The distrust fueled by last year’s actions, described above, leave this Government with the insurmountable problem of attempting to regain the immediate trust of the unions during negotiations. I simply do not see the Provincial Government making any real efforts to do so — hence, my prediction of impasse. I certainly hope that the Government does not again attempt to bulldoze results. The consequences from public backlash, when combined with other recent issues (including, but not limited to, the Film Tax Credit debacle), could make this Government’s tenure a short one.