There was lots of talk about rebuilding relationships as Premier Stephen McNeil announced his new cabinet Thursday, but while the people doing the talking were different, the government's overall bargaining position doesn't appear set to change.
The man now tasked with overseeing all government labour negotiations is newly-minted Labour Relations Minister Mark Furey.
While it's a new title in government, there isn't a new department. Furey, who is also justice minister, will work with the government's senior negotiators and staff in the Public Service Commission, as well as Health Department staff who specialize in labour files.
Past experience valuable
It's a move that takes away any of the guesswork about what minister oversees negotiations and applies only to the public sector.
When the government upended the film industry, essentially throwing a rock at a bees' nest, by cancelling the film tax credit in 2015, Furey was sent in — a bureaucratic beekeeper, of sorts — to attempt to repair the relationship.
That experience was part of what brought Furey the new role, said McNeil.
Many challenges ahead
Furey faces tall tasks: the Nova Scotia Teachers Union is challenging an imposed contract in court; the Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union has called for arbitration for civil servants; and there remains no contract for health-care workers.
The minister said he'd be briefed quickly and hoped to meet as soon as next week with union heads, all in an attempt to "rebuild relationships."
"There's a need to be honest and frank and respectful," said Furey.
"Thirty-two years in the RCMP and applying that approach worked well in some of the most confrontational situations … I'm looking forward to the opportunity to engage our labour leaders."
'Our position hasn't changed'
But how anything, other than the person speaking for government, will be different remains unclear, given the Liberals' commitment to the wage pattern they imposed on teachers and reached with several smaller unions.
"Our position hasn't changed around our ability to live within our means," said Furey.
McNeil further underscored this point, saying the second majority the Liberals earned in last month's election was a validation from the public of the wage pattern the Grits have embraced.
It will be Furey's job to find a way get that wage pattern in place with the remaining unions, perhaps by focusing on other aspects of the contracts, said the premier.
Working with teachers
The other person talking about "repair work" on Thursday was Education Minister Zach Churchill.
He inherits a portfolio rife with conflict, following the province's first-ever teachers strike in relation to that imposed contract and ever-increasing tensions between the teachers union and now former education minister Karen Casey.
Casey was made finance minister and deputy premier on Thursday.
Churchill, who has extensive family connections to the teaching profession, said he'd look to begin mending fences right away.
"They need to know that government cares about what their concerns are and that we're going to keep moving on them and I think, at the end of the day, if we can all work together we're going to have a better system."
'Tough labour negotiations'
Churchill may not have to worry about the labour component of that relationship — that falls to Furey — but he stood by the path that brought the government where it is today.
"We had tough labour negotiations, there's no question about that. That was for good reason, in my opinion, because we have to, as a government, say, 'No,' sometimes and that leads to tensions."
NSTU calls for 'fairness'
Where Churchill's starting point will be is that "everybody agrees that changes need to be made in the classroom," he said, pledging his "full commitment" to working with, and listening to teachers to help bring about those changes.
Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Liette Doucet issued a statement saying she hoped Churchill would "bring to the role a sense [of] fairness and willingness to work" with teachers and the union to implement reforms.
"We are hopeful this signals that government finally intends to work with unions and their members in a fair and respectful way to clear the backlog of collective agreements that are now long-expired," NSGEU president Jason MacLean said in an email.