NSGEU president Jason MacLean not reoffering, but eyes national union role
Longtime union president known for going toe to toe with former premier Stephen McNeil over labour legislation
After six years at the helm of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, Jason MacLean has decided not to reoffer as president.
But MacLean hopes to keep his feet firmly planted in the labour movement. He is running for secretary treasurer of the National Union of Public and General Employees — the national counterpart to the NSGEU and other provincial unions across the country.
MacLean, who grew up in Whitney Pier, was elected NSGEU president in 2016. He replaced fellow Cape Bretoner Joan Jessome, who stepped down from the post after 17 years.
MacLean said it was his experiences as a Black man working as a correctional officer in Sydney that made him want to get involved in the labour movement.
"I was trained to be a correctional officer, but I wasn't trained to deal with, I guess, the racism that was going on in my workplace, both from … offenders and from staff," MacLean told CBC Radio Information Morning Cape Breton host Steve Sutherland.
"Being African Nova Scotian, not everywhere you go was safe and not everywhere you went … you felt accepted. But I felt accepted [in the union]."
MacLean got involved in social justice and representing employees having issues in his workplace. He was elected first vice-president of the union in 2009. When word came that Jessome wasn't reoffering in 2016, MacLean put his name forward and ran unopposed.
For much of his time with the NSGEU, MacLean went toe to toe with former Liberal premier Stephen McNeil.
The McNeil government's plan to condense union membership among health-care workers and the merging of health authorities saw MacLean leading the charge outside the legislature, where during round-the-clock protests he boomed a chant of "Steee-vaaannn" into a megaphone.
MacLean became more vocal as president as the Liberal government took a combative approach to union negotiations, legislating many contracts into place.
"The biggest eye-opener for me was how many doors were shut with government," he said. "At that time, the Stephen McNeil Liberals had taken over and pretty much declared war on unions in collective agreements."
But MacLean said his goal was to make it clear that his union's 30,000 members are also taxpayers and service providers to Nova Scotians, especially during the pandemic.
"People still have thoughts if they like unions or they dislike unions, but they cannot deny what our members have done … stepping up, making sure the services are still there for Nova Scotians," he said.
Nova Scotia Nurses' Union president Janet Hazelton said the previous government's handling of unions galvanized the province's labour movement. That meant she worked alongside MacLean on many of the same issues.
"Unions deal with their own members and their own issues, and the times that we become close is when the attack is on the labour movement as a whole as opposed to a certain sector of the labour movement," said Hazelton. "When you lead a union like [MacLean] has and did, you have to be strong for it. Because it's not an easy job.
"You have to be able to articulate what your position is clearly so that Nova Scotians understand what … your issue is. So Jason was very good at all of that and I think we're going to miss him in Nova Scotia."
As more workplaces open up after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, MacLean said the big challenge for his successor might not be the same as he faced with the McNeil government, but rather the fact that many workers have had a change of attitude.
"Workers are now starting to assert their worth," said MacLean. "They're starting to say, 'I am worth more and I need more,' and a lot of employers are scrambling."
He said employees of all sectors, including the government, are looking for better working conditions and wages to keep up with the rising cost of living. That has made provinces compete against each other to recruit and retain workers.
MacLean said he believes that is something he will have to help unions navigate if he is elected secretary treasurer of the National Union of Public and General Employees. A convention is scheduled for June 17-19.
NSGEU's convention is happening May 12-14. A new president will be elected on the final day.
With files from Information Morning Cape Breton and Michael Gorman