BATTLING AUSTERITY: Nova Scotia Workers Fight Back

Dec 2, 2017

PHOTOGRAPH: TONY TRACY

On September 21, 2017, over 1,000 Nova Scotia union members and supporters answered the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour's call and rallied outside of Province House drowning out the Liberal government's Speech from the Throne. A large-scale cartoon cutout of Premier McNeil loomed large, his foot lifted, ready to stomp on workers' rights.

PROTESTING BILL 148
They were protesting the "Public Services Sustainability Act," formerly Bill 148, which imposes wage caps and removes a previously negotiated benefit — the long-service award — from collective agreements. The Act, proclaimed August 22, 2017, impacts more than 75,000 public sector workers in the province.

"I think McNeil thought that he could just dictate what's happening and everybody would take it, but it didn't happen that way," says Jason MacLean, president of the Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union (NSGEU).

Unions are calling the Act unconstitutional, asserting that it contravenes workers' freedom of association under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This argument hinges on the fact that the government is removing a previously negotiated, and ratified, benefit from collective agreements.

Jason MacLean, a corrections officer from Sydney, Nova Scotia, is president of the Nova Scotia Government & Service Employees Union (NSGEU). PHOTOGRAPH: LORRAINE ENDICOTT/ OUR TIMES MAGAZINE

"It's a person's wages that are deferred and these wages are given upon a person's retirement," MacLean says of the long-service award. The major problem with the long-service award is that it's called an award, MacLean adds. Negotiated in lieu of wage increases, the "award" was meant to boost recruitment and the retention of public sector workers. As of April 2015 current members stopped accruing the "award," and the benefit was terminated for new hires.

The rally was partly a response to the government's decision not to send the sections of the Act that removed the long-service award — the ones at issue — to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeals for review. On October 4 the government bowed under the pressure and sent the Act in its entirety to the Court of Appeals, a victory for workers and their unions.

The Act also imposes a two-year wage freeze followed by increases of one per cent in the third year, and 1.5 per cent the fourth, with an additional .5 per cent on the last day of that year. In an August 31, 2017 op-ed for the Nova Scotia Advocate, Larry Haiven, retired industrial relations professor and research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said this could amount to a real wage cut of around seven per cent.

As a work-around, the NSGEU tabled proposals for a fifth and sixth year of a contract, which fall outside the Act's purview. On December 7, the Civil Service Arbitration Board agreed to extend the contract by two years, giving civil service members a combined two per cent wage increase in those last two years.

EVERYONE SHOULD BE PAID WELL
Today when someone learns that someone else is getting paid well for their labour, people say "wow are you ever lucky," says MacLean, who believes everyone should be paid well. His members' jobs, he says, "are feeding families and enabling other businesses to stay open."

Cutting public sector wages also drives down those in the private sector, argued CUPE Nova Scotia (Canadian Union of Public Employees) in a September 21 post: "While business lobby groups and some politicians like to sow division between workers, public and private sector wages are linked. Suppressing public sector wages will eventually drive down private-sector wages. Keeping wages down is one of the worst things to do to our economy."

THE SPARK THAT LIT THE FIRE
The spark that lit the anti-Bill 148 fire came from a seemingly unlikely place, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU).

PHOTOGRAPH: LORRAINE ENDICOTT/ OUR TIMES MAGAZINE

In 2016, public school teachers rejected several leadership-recommended contracts from the government before going on strike for the first time in their 122-year history. "We were like, 'Bravo, way to go teachers!' because we were believing the teachers were going to take it," MacLean recounted to reporter Tim Bousquet on Halifax podcast Examineradio.

The government imposed Bill 148-like legislation — Bill 75 — on the teachers, which also legislated a wage cap and removed the teacher's long-service award. The NSGEU's leadership felt emboldened by the teachers, MacLean told Bousquet. The teachers' stand was the push the union leadership needed to recommend rejection to their membership, and Bill 148 was introduced soon after.

Bills 75 and 148 are only two of seven pieces of Nova Scotia Liberal legislation that made up an "ongoing attack on unions," according to CUPE Nova Scotia.

Labour leaders and activists see the legislation as hypocritical, given the provincial Liberals' May 2013 open letter to union members in the Chronicle Herald proclaiming: "The Nova Scotia Liberal Caucus Believes in Workers' Rights." The ad stated that the then official opposition supported the collective bargaining process, the right to strike, and protecting workers' rights.

ATTACK ON WORKERS
The Public Services Sustainability Act impacts a wide swath of workers: nurses; child care, group home and home care workers; acute and long-term care staff; lab techs, blood collection staff, orderlies, housekeeping in hospitals; community college faculty and professional support staff; school board employees; corrections workers; social workers; child protection workers; NSLC (Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation) workers, and more.

These workers run the spectrum when it comes to salaries and benefits. According to UNIFOR Atlantic regional director Lana Payne, some of their members make between $15 and $18 per hour, "and these workers are getting lost in the narrative," she told Robert Devet of the Nova Scotia Advocate. Jason MacLean says that while some public sector workers are paid $90,000 or more per year, others makes $20,000, adding most earn less than $50,000.

"People work those jobs, in part, because they have benefits. And what McNeil is doing is taking away one of the main benefits they have, and that's the public service award," says MacLean. Not all 75,000 public sector workers in Nova Scotia have the long-service award, he adds.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2016, 65 per cent of public sector jobs in Nova Scotia were held by women. During the October 24 session of the legislature, NDP MLA Lenore Zann asked the Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, Kelly Regan, to table "a list of all government policies and spending commitments that have undergone a gender-based analysis." Regan did not answer the question directly but said that all civil servants had been trained how to do gender-based analysis.

The union fightback against Bill 148 culminated in mid-December 2015, when workers came together in an impressive show of unity.

14 HOURS OF TESTIMONY
Between December 15 and 17 over 100 people gave, in total, 14 hours of testimony to the government's law amendments committee during their public hearings on Bill 148, either in person or via email. One such email was from a 2014 graduate and new nurse in acute care in Halifax, C. Campbell. "I have a large student loan, because I have two degrees and am a single parent," Campbell wrote. "If bill #148 goes through, I can tell you that my interest in staying in Nova Scotia, to be the caring and dedicated nurse that I am, becomes an interest in me going elsewhere to practise my craft, provide for my family, and to pay off my enormous student loans."

After an all-night sitting Bill 148 passed at 7:45 a.m. on December 18, 2015, just four days after its first reading in the house.

According to a government handout, as the title suggests, the "Public Services Sustainability Act" was introduced in the name of being "affordable for taxpayers" and protecting them "from arbitrated wage settlements higher than those set out in the province's fiscal plan."

The government also argued that it "encourages public-sector employers and unions to work together to find savings — a portion of which could then be applied to further wage increases."

"The Liberals are trying to blame teachers, nurses, civil servants and other public sector workers for the so-called financial crisis in the province," local anti-capitalist group Solidarity Halifax wrote in a December 2015 statement. "It is not the wages of public sector workers that have caused financial problems." The province ended the 2016-17 fiscal year with a $150 million surplus.

PHOTOGRAPH: COURTESY AIDAN MCNALLY

University of King's College student and chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students-Nova Scotia, Aidan McNally, spoke to the broad impacts of the Act at the September 21 rally.

"Students showed up at the rally in September both lending support to workers but also acknowledging that Bill 148 is part of this government's austerity agenda, which is constantly balancing its budget on students and workers in Nova Scotia," McNally tells Our Times.

"We have students who might be currently employed in the public service but also students who will be graduating when the effects of Bill 148 are felt."

Like Campbell, these students are graduating with historically high levels of student debt — a per-student average of $39,600 according to Statistics Canada's National Graduate Survey, she added.

According to MacLean, Bill 148 has meant that bargaining has been anything but traditional. "We couldn't take those two pieces to any table and have them ratify it," MacLean says of the wage caps and removing the long-service award. "We couldn't continue because employers are emboldened by the bills that the government put forward."

On October 16, eight unions were granted intervenor status in the Court of Appeals hearing on the constitutionality of the Act. The victory followed a September 6 press conference where the elected union representatives announced their intentions to apply for the status that allows them to submit written arguments, file evidence, and present oral arguments.

Unions in other provinces have used the legal route to win similar battles, but it took years. MacLean anticipates a ruling by January of 2019.

MacLean jokes that he is about to turn "full lobbyist" for the remainder of this government's term.

On September 16, the Nova Scotia Advocate's Devet argued that labour should escalate its tactics. He called for unions to consider actions such as their members not working overtime in hospitals, and wrote that even a symbolic walkout should be an option.

Bill 148 and its six sister bills may have had unintended consequences, says MacLean. "I believe they've promoted solidarity amongst the labour movement," he tells Our Times. "We're working together in a manner that we have never worked together before. We're more resilient than ever."

Rebecca Rose is a freelance journalist and member of the Canadian Freelance Union.

 

© Copyright by OurTimes.ca