Nova Scotia unions ask to be included in legal review of wage-freeze law

Nova Scotia Province House. Photo: Taber Andrew Bain/flickr

Unions in Nova Scotia are asking to be included in a legal review of a bill that restricts wage increases for public servants and, they say, infringes on their constitutional rights to collectively bargain.

On Sept. 6, CUPE Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union (NSNU), the Nova Scotia Teachers' Union (NSTU), SEIU Local 2, Unifor and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) asked to be part of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal's review of Bill 148.

The Public Services Sustainability Act, or Bill 148, came into effect on Aug. 22. It limits wage increases in public service contracts to three per cent over the next four years. Under the legislation, wages cannot increase for two years. In the third year, they can increase by 1 per cent and by another 1.5 per cent in the fourth year. They can increase by 0.5 per cent on the last day of the fourth year of the agreement.

The government should have asked the court to look at the entire law, and should have included unions in this review, say union leaders.

It applies to unionized and non-unionized employees.

Judges and physician residents are exempt. It also does not apply to unions or non-union employees who have settled collective bargaining agreements that have wage increases that comply with the ones in the law. This includes teachers and Crown attorneys, the government said in a press release.

The act also removes the ability of arbitrators to settle contract disputes. It would create the Public Services Sustainability Board to deal with interpretation issues of the new law.

The bill was introduced in 2015.

In a press release on Aug. 22, the government said the new law is necessary to save money so the government can invest in improving services like health care and education.

"The government must safeguard the interests of taxpayers," said Labour Relations Minister Mark Furey in the release.

The government sent the part of the law that restricts wage increases to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal for a constitutional review.

Sending part of it for review is "completely unfair," said Danny Cavanagh, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour. "If the government really believes that it has a good case, they should have the will to put the whole bill to the Court of Appeal so it can determine its constitutionality, and not just part of the bill."

The bill also freezes a retirement allowance benefit. Right now, the amount of these benefits is negotiated and written into contracts. These benefits are often called the long service award, but known as "the long-term benefit" in the bill. The benefit is usually equal to one week of pay for every year of service, to a maximum of 26 weeks. Some of these benefit amounts have been in place for decades. The bill freezes these benefits as of April 2015. It removes the benefit entirely for people hired after April 2015.

Unions are concerned these changes will make it harder to attract and retain workers.

Many workers "don't have gold-plated pensions" or benefits, said Cavanagh. Many earn between $15 and $17 an hour, he said.

These imposed wage freezes could put the health of Nova Scotians at risk, said Janet Hazelton, president of the NSNU. Right now, many nursing graduates are hired to work in the province. But with more nurses approaching retirement, these wage restrictions will make it hard to attract new nurses.

"Imposing legislation before we know what other provinces are going to be paying their nurses is unwise," she said. Members will not be likely to vote for a contract like this, she said, and the imposed restrictions are unnecessary because unions have been negotiating contracts for decades.

"This isn't the first government that's said it's broke," said Hazelton.

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled governments cannot sidestep collective bargaining through legislation.

The NSGEU launched a challenge with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court on Aug. 30 asking the entire bill be declared unconstitutional. This challenge is separate from the unions asking to be part of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal's review.

Union leaders are also upset by how the law removes arbitrators.

"We think that's a huge slap in the face to professional arbitrators that both the employer and employee select," said Cavanagh. This bill's wage restraints "tie an arbitrator's hands," he said.

"Arbitrators rule on principles of law, the economy and all those other kinds of things -- arbitrators do not rule on the political aspirations of any government."

Bill 148 also negatively impacts private workers, said Lana Payne, Unifor's Atlantic regional director at a press conference. It has "emboldened" employers in the private sector to reduce the increases they offer employees because they see the government doing the same thing to its workers.

"This kind of wage restraint has a ripple effect in our economy. It doesn't just stay in a bubble," she said.

Larry Haiven, professor emeritus of labour relations at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, said Bill 148 shows how all governments often get "spooked" by arbitration. They don't want workers to strike, he said, but they also think arbitrators won't be favourable to them.

Only sending part of the bill for review was "sneaky," he said. In his opinion, the government will have to try to prove it consulted with unions before passing the legislation.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: Taber Andrew Bain/flickr

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