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Does Henry VIII's point man give Nova Scotia's finance minister inspiration?

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Like many others, I love Hilary Mantel's two Man-Booker prize-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's political fixer par excellence, as well as the six-part BBC television adaptation.

My mind turns to Thomas Cromwell as I watch Finance Minister Randy Delorey take on the workers who deliver our public services.

To some chroniclers, Henry's chief minister was a nefarious manipulator. To others like Mantel, he was a virtuous manipulator. But one thing's for sure. He could be relied upon to get the impossible done, make white seem black. Give him a task, any task. Like preparing the King's grabbing leadership of the church in England from the Pope. Like legitimizing Henry's seizure of the booty from the monasteries. Like justifying the annulment of his patron's marriage to Catherine and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. Like later devising grounds to get the same Anne Boleyn's head removed.

Until Cromwell's own luck ran out in 1540 when Henry became impatient after one last intrigue, and Cromwell, too, lost his head.

Finance Minister Delorey is Premier McNeil's Cromwell in trying to balance the provincial budget on the backs of public sector workers.

Here's Delorey's Cromwellian dilemma: Most of those workers, from doctors to teachers to crown attorneys, engage in some form of collective bargaining. The Supreme Court of Canada says collective bargaining and the right to strike are essential to democracy, protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That means governments have to sit down and negotiate in good faith, not just pretend. And if you want to take away the right to strike, then you need to substitute something meaningful -- like binding arbitration.

The Liberal government doesn't seem to want to do collective bargaining. Witness the shotgun negotiations with the teachers. And it certainly doesn't support the right to strike. But it also doesn't want to risk arbitration, where a third party just might agree with some of the workers' proposals. Like many governments, it would like to suspend the whole messy business and impose a settlement by divine right, in the tradition of Henry VIII. But even Henry needed a Cromwell to prevaricate and smother England's budding democracy. So Delorey has mused about how collective bargaining is really "broken" (since it won't do what the government wants.)

One Delorey gambit was to tell the workers that to avoid a cut in real wages, they would have to come up with ways of saving money for the government. Apparently they have done so. Except that the government really doesn't want any ideas from the workers.

As with all provincial governments, Nova Scotia has jealously limited the scope of issues open to negotiation by its own workers, relying on the doctrine of "Management's Rights." To cite the Civil Service Master Agreement "The management and direction of employees and operations is vested exclusively in the Employer, and any matter arising out of this shall not be the subject of collective bargaining."  Up to a few years ago, certain issues were barred by law from negotiation and arbitration.

And now Delorey wants us to believe he values the workers' input. If only they would be reasonable and submit their necks to the blade, all would be well again in our kingdom.

But, as we saw with last year's government attempt to gerrymander health care union representation, it can become a public relations fiasco. Now Nova Scotia's teachers have defied the government, their own bargaining committee and executive and rejected a settlement.

The recent sacking of Andrew Younger shows what happens when Stephen McNeil becomes impatient with public relations fiascos. I wonder if Delorey felt his neck itch.

Larry Haiven is a professor in the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary's University and a research associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives -- Nova Scotia

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