Province and civil servants headed back to bargaining table
New dates in August replace scheduled hearings before the Labour Board
Little more than a week before the Nova Scotia government and the union representing civil servants were scheduled for a Labour Board hearing, the two sides have agreed to new contract talks and the province appears to have stepped back from its opposition to arbitration.
The Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union announced Friday it has agreed with the provincial government to two more conciliation dates, on Aug. 8 and 9, in an attempt to reach a new contract for more than 7,000 civil service workers.
The dates had previously been set for an arbitration hearing before the province's Labour Board, which was scheduled after the union filed for arbitration, a move the government opposed.
Premier Stephen McNeil has previously said he would proclaim Bill 148, imposing a wage package on members of any union that tried to trigger arbitration.
Government requested the change
NSGEU president Jason MacLean said it was the government that approached the union about the change. He said it was only after the government said — in front of the Labour Board chair on Friday — that it would not oppose binding arbitration if deal cannot be reached, that the union agreed.
"We're entering in conciliation with the thought that we could get a deal out of this," said MacLean.
"And if we cannot get a deal, then we'll have our wishes to move forward into binding arbitration [in] which I believe we would get a fair deal."
Union members rejected the government's final offer last December. The offer was the standard government offer to all unions: a 3.5 per cent wage increase over four years, beginning with a two-year wage freeze, and the end of the public service award.
MacLean and the union have maintained throughout the process they aren't seeking more, but simply don't want to give up what's been earned through past bargaining, in particular the public service award, a benefit paid out upon retirement.
"My members do not want to [give up benefits] and I will go to the end protecting what they have in their collective agreement," he said.
"If they want the public service award, then we're going to have to look at something that's equal to the public service award. But if we don't get to that position, then it's going to break down and we're going to go into arbitration."
Change in approach
The move from the government is a stark departure. As recently as Thursday, Finance Minister Karen Casey said the government did not intend to change its approach to bargaining, nor does it intend to sign agreements it views as beyond the province's means to pay.
The Liberals have argued the contract imposed on teachers earlier this year — the same deal being offered to civil servants — sets a wage pattern.
MacLean said he wasn't sure what to make of the request from the government, but he's going into next month's talks with an open mind.
"We will leave no stone unturned to get a deal for our members. And to get a deal is to deal with what's there on the table, not to take things out of the collective agreement."
Not ruling out Bill 148
In a statement, government spokesperson Andrew Preeper said the hope remains to reach a deal next month.
Government has maintained since May that an agreement could still be negotiated, he said.
But if the dispute does proceed to arbitration, Preeper said government will consider its options.
"Using [Bill 148] would protect against arbitrated wage settlements that put our fiscal plan at risk. The act respects collective bargaining rights and ensures matters outside the wage framework – such as working conditions – remain negotiable."
In a subsequent email on Saturday, a government spokesperson said it isn't accurate to say government has stepped back from its opposition to arbitration or call the move a departure.
"Government has been consistent in saying it is opposed to an unelected, unaccountable third party deciding what taxpayers can afford to pay," said Preeper. "However, government is aware that, according to legislation, an impasse would lead to arbitration."