A proposal to introduce a new system for negotiating a first union contract in Nova Scotia is bad for entrepreneurs, says a local small business advocate.

In late September, the province’s NDP government invited business and union representatives to discuss first contract arbitration, which would give a third party the power to set working conditions in a first contract between management and unionized staff.

The invitation follows last year’s move by the province to pass Bill 100, creating the Labour Management Review Committee, composed of managers and union members in unionized workplaces. The government has asked this committee to decide whether to implement first contract arbitration, and if so, what form it should take. 

Leanne Hachey, vice-president Atlantic for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says while she was pleased to have been invited to speak to the committee, she worries that it has no small business representatives.

"Here you have a group that could be potentially making recommendations that don’t impact them [small businesses] at all. So they don’t have any skin in the game," she said.

First-contract arbitration

Six provinces already have first-contract arbitration incorporated into their labour laws, starting with British Columbia in 1973.

While the details differ from province to province, it is essentially a system that puts a time limit on negotiations between employers and newly unionized employees.  If there is no agreement at the end of that time, an independent arbitrator steps in and imposes a first contract.

The system also removes the possibility of a strike or lockout during negotiations for a first contract, which Hachey says makes unionizing a small business less confrontational, and therefore more likely to succeed.

That’s bad news for entrepreneurs who need flexible work arrangements, she said.

"There are no job descriptions in a three- or four-person shop. It’s all hands on deck, all of the time," said Hachey. "How would an arbitrator put together a collective agreement for a business whose bread and butter is its ability to be flexible?"

But the president of the province’s second largest union says the CFIB’s stance is "fear mongering."

The Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Danny Cavanagh says the proposal won’t make it any more likely that a small business will become unionized. He points to other provinces with first contract arbitration where small businesses remain, by and large, unionized.

"This is about bringing people to a table to make sure they get a result when the employees in that workplace have decided they want a union," says Cavanagh. "We think this is a good thing."