Nova Scotia

Province's attempts to deal with deficit will collide with major contract negotiations

Of the 308 collective agreements with the public sector, 68 per cent are at or near expiry, according to a provincial government spokesperson. The breakdown includes 44 expired contracts and 165 that will expire by the end of 2020.

Every major collective agreement in N.S. will expire by the end of March

The Liberal government's approach to collective bargaining has often led to protests and public fights with unions since 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

A deficit of staggering proportions, and a declaration by Premier Stephen McNeil that reining it in will not wait, could add up to difficult contract negotiations on the horizon for much of Nova Scotia's public service.

Of the 308 collective agreements with the public sector, 68 per cent are at or near expiry, according to a provincial government spokesperson. The breakdown includes 44 expired contracts and 165 that will expire by the end of 2020.

That a contract has expired or is close to expiring does not mean the two sides are at the bargaining table. Active bargaining right now includes one of the province's major unions and several smaller groups.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union, which represents more than 9,000 people, has been in bargaining since its contract ran out at the end of July 2019.

Union officials say talks were paused for a period as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the province and to focus on the restart of school.

Major contracts about to expire

Other ongoing contract talks include the Nova Scotia Government Lawyers Association, which represents about 75 lawyers.

There are a variety of small contracts through the Health Department and Community Services Department, and 65 employees of Emergency Medical Care, who are represented by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.

The expiry of most other major contracts is also looming.

The contract for about 1,100 highway workers, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, expires on Oct. 31. That same day, the eight collective agreements for about 17,000 full-time equivalent positions in the Nova Scotia Health Authority and IWK Health Centre also expire.

The contract for about 7,000 civil servants, represented by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, expires on March 31, 2021.

A fiscal update last month pegged the deficit at about $853 million, the result of COVID-19 virtually shutting down the province's economy beginning in March.

Finance Minister Karen Casey said at the time that turning the financial corner would take hard work and wouldn't happen quickly, and she said layoffs were not something the government was considering as part of the effort.

Premier Stephen McNeil has said the public sector needs to be part of the effort to reduce Nova Scotia's deficit. (Ted Pritchard/The Canadian Press)

The following day, however, McNeil said efforts would begin right away to find new ways to generate revenue as well as find possible savings. The premier said the public service would need to be part of that effort.

"People need to understand that for four months there were many people in this province who lost their entire paycheque while others were continuing to be paid, and I think we need to be mindful of that," he told reporters last month.

"If the issue becomes that labour wants to continue to fight for more and more that the province does not have the ability to pay, then obviously that would mean there would have to be fewer people … They're going to have to make that decision and I look forward to continuing to work with them."

A mitigating factor in the tone and approach at the bargaining tables will be McNeil.

A hallmark of the premier's time leading the government has been hardline negotiations that often resulted in imposed contracts and legislation bending the terms of agreements in his government's favour. Many of these contracts are now being challenged in court on the basis that they are unconstitutional.

With the premier having announced his plans to retire, and a new Liberal leader scheduled to be elected next February, it's possible McNeil won't be in office by the time many of these negotiations begin. At that point it would be the new premier's outlook on collective bargaining that would inform how the province approaches future negotiations.

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