The Newfoundland and Labrador government has brought in some high-profile reinforcements as it prepares for tough talks with public sector unions. 

St. John's law firm McInnes Cooper has been retained to advise the government during its negotiations with unions such as NAPE, CUPE, the Registered Nurses' Union and the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association. 

McInnes Cooper has in turn hired consultant Cathy Dornan, who is on contract to provide strategic communications advice. 

McInnes Cooper is one of Atlantic Canada's top law firms and a key player in labour and employment law in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Partner Denis Mahoney represented the St. John's Airport Authority during its 2013 strike by workers. Mahoney also worked for Vale during an 18-month strike by Voisey's Bay workers.

$350 an hour

The law firm has been hired on a hourly-rate contract. It will receive $350 an hour for collective bargaining support and $175 an hour for any additional services. The contract will run until the collective bargaining process is completed — a process that will undoubtedly take months. 

Dornan — according to her website — offers her clients help with issues management, crisis communications and strategic counsel. Her clients include major oil companies such as Chevron and Statoil.

But Dornan also has strong Liberal connections. She was former premier Brian Tobin's director of communications from 1996 to 1998.

Her husband, Robert Dornan, was former premier Roger Grimes' chief of staff. Robert Dornan also worked on Finance Minister Cathy Bennett's Liberal leadership campaign. 

'I am truly shocked to learn [government has] the gall to hire a law firm for over $350-plus an hour to handle public sector negotiations.' - Jerry Earle, NAPE President

In a statement issued Saturday, NAPE President Jerry Earle was critical of the partnership.

He said he's "truly shocked" government has "the gall to hire a law firm for over $350 plus an hour to handle public sector negotiations" when it has "no money for libraries, for Masonic Park, for over 650 jobs, for courts, offices and so many other important services."

He said a bad situation was made worse when the public learned about the hourly rate through local media. 

"This law firm has a reputation and a track record in this province — playing a lead role in two of the province's longest strikes at Voisey's Bay and St. John's Airport," he said. 

Earle said he's never seen a budget incite such a level of "anger, frustration and disappointment" from the public, but said members of the province's largest public sector union "will not be intimidated."

Extra resources

A government spokesperson says McInnes Cooper was hired because the government felt it needed extra resources for collective bargaining. 

But these moves send a clear signal that the government is bracing for difficult negotiations with its major unions. "They're coming after us for concessions" is how one labour insider reacted to the news of the hires. 

This high-level help will also come with a high-level price tag, which could raise questions as to why a government with an in-house labour relations division and a large communications staff would need to spend money on outside expertise right after tabling an austerity budget. 

'I encourage all concerned citizens to attend have their voices heard.' - Jerry Earle, NAPE president

The fallout from the budget is certain to have an impact on collective bargaining once it begins.

NAPE has already launched a series of province-wide protests to oppose the measures in the budget. 

This builds on a series of online NAPE ads which directly target Premier Dwight Ball for breaking key election promises. 

"The contempt in the public for this budget is palpable. We wanted to provide opportunities for workers and community members and organizations to voice their opposition," NAPE President Jerry Earle said while announcing the protests.

"I encourage all concerned citizens to attend have their voices heard. This is not only about jobs, this is about how cuts to our public services hurts us all."