Nova Scotia

Union cries foul over limited constitutional review of wage package deal

The union that represents civil servants is criticizing the province for excluding sections of the legislation from a constitutional review by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal.

Dispute appears to centre on sections dealing with long-service award

NSGEU president Jason MacLean says the province should submit Bill 148 in its entirety to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal. (CBC)

The union that represents civil servants in Nova Scotia is criticizing the province for excluding some sections of Bill 148 from a review by the courts.

The province on Tuesday proclaimed the Public Services Sustainability Act on all public sector unions without a contract, effectively imposing a wage package on the province's 75,000 public sector employees.

The Liberal government said the legislation would be referred to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal to get an opinion on its constitutionality.

On Thursday, the Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union took issue with that statement and singled out Premier Stephen McNeil.

Union sees 'anti-worker agenda'

"We now know that he has only sent parts of the bill that are favourable to him and his anti-worker agenda," NSGEU President Jason MacLean said in a news release.

The dispute appears to centre on sections of the legislation that deal with the long-service award, which is a payment that employees receive upon retirement if they have at least 10 years of service under their belt.

Bill 148 freezes the amount of the award retroactive to April 1, 2015, and scraps it for any new employees.

Court documents show the province's referral does not include sections of the bill that deal with those changes.

Province vows to defend 'all sections of the act'

Labour Relations Minister Mark Furey wasn't available for an interview on Thursday. But a spokesperson for the province issued a statement defending the bill and acknowledging that the constitutionality question referred to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal focused on "specific sections" of the legislation.

"As this is a matter before the court, we will not be speaking to details of the case," said Tina Thibeau, the Nova Scotia government's director of media relations.

"While specific sections form the basis of the reference case, the government is confident of the constitutionality of all sections of the act and remain prepared to defend all sections of the act in any future court proceeding," she said.

McNeil has said the proclamation of Bill 148 is in the "best interests of Nova Scotians."

"I've made it very clear that an unelected, unaccountable arbitrator will not determine the taxpayers' ability to pay," McNeil told reporters on Tuesday.

Appeal to Supreme Court likely

Wayne MacKay, a former professor of constitutional law at Dalhousie University, said whichever way the court rules, an appeal is likely to the Supreme Court of Canada because either the province or the unions will be unhappy.

Wayne MacKay says if one side appeals to the Supreme Court of Canada, it's far from clear that the province will win. (CBC)

He said in recent years the Supreme Court justices have been taking "a much more expansive view of freedom of association, and have been striking down quite a number of legislative attempts that violate that, focusing mainly on the core question on whether there's a significant interference with free collective bargaining."

What's at stake is who gets to decide how the budget gets spent, MacKay said Thursday on Information Morning. That falls to the legislature and the cabinet, "but within constitutional limits," he said.

Bill limits arbitrators

The legislation was passed in December 2015 to ensure third-party arbitrators could not bind the government to wage settlements. At the time, McNeil promised it would not be brought into force until it was needed.

The government's proclamation came two weeks after the NSGEU filed for arbitration on behalf of nearly 8,000 civil servants following the breakdown of last-ditch conciliation talks. Those workers included corrections, child welfare and court employees.

The bill would also cover thousands of other workers, including those in health care who have yet to reach new deals with the province.

It limits arbitrators from making awards that exceed wage guidelines set at a three per cent increase over four years.

With files from The Canadian Press