Union leaders across Nova Scotia are accusing the McNeil government of bulldozing its way to the wage package it wanted for public sector workers.
The government announced Tuesday it was proclaiming Bill 148, a move that essentially defines a wage package for all of the 75,000 public sector workers currently without a contract, including members of the civil service and health-care workers.
Nova Scotia Federation of Labour president Danny Cavanagh said he'd be meeting with union leaders to plan a legal challenge to the bill.
Hollow concerns about spending
Cavanagh said examples in British Columbia and Saskatchewan where labour bills were overturned give him confidence the courts will ultimately side with workers.
"If this lives up to a constitutional challenge like we think it will, you know, seven years from now where's this government going to be and who's going to hold them to account? So it's easy for them to make those decisions based on political rhetoric."
Cavanagh said the government's talk about what it can and cannot afford doesn't wash with the amount of pre-election spending by the Liberals in the spring and the level of surplus recently highlighted in the annual public accounts.
Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union president Jason MacLean said he wasn't surprised by the government's move.
"The government doesn't care about hard-working people. Rather than negotiate a fair wage and benefits that are long-standing, [Stephen McNeil] would rather pay hundreds and thousands of dollars to high-priced Liberal lawyers to do the dirty work for him," said MacLean.
"We brought proposal after proposal to negotiations and they brought nothing."
MacLean said the NSGEU plans to challenge the proclamation in court.
During a scrum with reporters Tuesday afternoon, MacLean called McNeil a snake.
"It is harsh, but it's true. I mean, I've dealt with this guy. He smiles, he tells you a bunch of things he would like you to do and as soon as you don't agree with him then he drops the hammer on you," said MacLean.
"For him to say to the public that all they're doing is capping wages, that is an outright lie and I stand behind everything I said."
Sending a bad message
Nova Scotia Nurses' Union president Janet Hazelton called the move premature, especially because her members haven't even reached the bargaining table. She worries about the effect the move might have on recruiting nurses in the future.
"We still have a shortage and I don't want nurses to think — well, they're gonna — that this is the way you're going to be treated in this province," said Hazelton.
"We've often had concessions in bargaining, we've often had takeaways in bargaining, but we've negotiated that. We've made decisions.
"That's what bargaining is about, and this takes away that."
The nurses and other health-care workers have been without contracts for several years. Progress on talks has been slow, with the two sides going back and forth trying to settle issues such as essential services agreements, and each side accusing the other of unfair bargaining.
Following the government announcement, Premier Stephen McNeil told reporters talks have been ongoing with unions for more than three years, often with little progress.
With the NSGEU's call for arbitration on behalf of civil servants, McNeil said the government needed parameters in place around potential wage offers. He said his government has worked hard to reach deals, despite the vast majority of the public sector being without contracts right now.
"We were the only group at the table that actually moved," he said, referencing the government's initial offer, which was a two per cent wage increase over five years.
Making reference to his party's consecutive majority government wins, McNeil said the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal needs to settle the question of who has the right and responsibility to determine what the government can afford to pay its workers.
"The constitution says that everyone is entitled to open and free collective bargaining," he said. "It doesn't say that everyone has to agree with what happens at the table."