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Labour Law: Derek Brett Featured on Global News Profile of Upcoming Labour Disputes



Labour lawyer predicts ugly negotiations between unions, province

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.

4 Comments on This Post
  1. John Corbett

    Ok. So a black picture has been painted but in reality Nova Scotia simply cannot cede to every union demand. What options exist to soften overall cost demands, improve performance efficiencies, reduce overheads and in short, improve the situation instead of postulating doom & gloom?

    • John, no one is telling the Province to cede to all union demands. Rather, good-faith negotiations would likely result in advances for both sides. As I mentioned earlier in my interview on the Sheldon MacLeod Show, understanding the serious issues afflicting the Province does not mean pointing the finger at workers. Rather, as Graham Steele noted in his Thursday CBC column, it involves taking on the true issues elevating costs, especially of health care. Graham pointed to several examples.

      Beyond this, the current Government which, to some degree, has done an admirable job of cutting some unnecessary fat (with some other examples to the contrary), has to face the fact that delivering a balanced budget during times of economic strife simply does not set the stage for long-term development, stability, prosperity. Call me a hopeless Keynesian, but these are the periods which actually required greater public spending to bolster private sector growth. No, this does not mean indefinitely financing a ferry which loses money; however, it does mean targeted investment on projects geared for long-term growth, including potential development of medical technology and green energy.

      Labour unions, though, are not part of the problem; rather, they are part of the solution, helping to attract a work force to the Province — an educated and qualified one, with upper mobility, and the potential to drive the Province forward in the 21st Century. Throwing down the gauntlet at the unions does not accomplish this necessary and proper objective. Again, even though I have nearly always represented labour interests, I also understand that the collective bargaining process requires compromise. So, are the sides willing to come to the table without ulterior motive, and hash out the proverbial hard-fought bargain? Sadly, history does not seem to support this happening.

  2. Kevin

    I’m a front line mental health worker for a non profit. I will be looking at wage freezes for the next 5 years and another 3 years to finally have a collective agreement , so therefore 8 years without a raise. How can I possibly keep up with the cost of living ,,plus not being able to put enough money back in to the economy, How can an economy grow this way?

    • Kevin, that is precisely the message that the citizens need to hear. It presents the reality, outside of the cold, hard numbers that the Finance Minister is instead attempting to pigeonhole as being the issue. Already, the politics are apparent. Yesterday, I reviewed an email from Mr. DeLorey. In it, he misrepresented that labour costs account for 52 cents on every public dollar spent in the Province.

      Health care costs do account for a majority of all dollars spent, but not labour. As former Finance Minister Graham Steele noted, the current Government needs to make hard decisions on the items that truly enhance our public spending. Targeting teachers, cops, firefighters, etc., is simply resorting to attempting to achieve a political agenda, while abdicating responsibility for achieving true cost savings by taking on items such as prescription drug costs. In the U.S., I was always amazed by local and state governments targeting unions, rather than demonstrating the political courage to take on vested interests whose policies and influence truly affect effectively legislating for the public good.

      So, what does it take? I know that there are some in the Liberal Caucus who are truly good people, attempting to do what is best for the overall good. So, how did a haphazard policy of blame the unions get adopted by the Leadership? My goodness, it feels so positively like I am back in the Southeastern U.S.!


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