What is expected to be a tough round of bargaining with Newfoundland and Labrador public servants took a turn Thursday, with news that a conciliation board has been requested for seven groups.
"We were completely blindsided by this move," said Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees.
"The thing that is most aggravating and, quite frankly, insulting, about this move by the government is that most of our groups have only been to the table a couple of times."
According to Earle, the request for a conciliation board applies to six NAPE bargaining units — lab and X-ray workers, maintenance and operational services, employees of the provincial liquor corporation, group homes and marine services.
Earle said some of those units have seen only 10 or 12 hours of bargaining — and he said the government is calling in conciliators unrealistically early in the bargaining process.
"If they're trying to convince the general public that they've given this due process, absolutely not," he said Thursday.
"They are trying to rush the process along – to what end?" asked Earle, who said the move undermines the commitment by government to reach a negotiated settlement since conciliators are usually called in when talks stall.
"It's really offensive already to us and our negotiators."
Finance Minister responds
In a briefing with reporters on Thursday afternoon, Finance Minister Cathy Bennett said there has been little or no movement on money issues during meetings with NAPE.
She said government has also requested conciliation for a bargaining unit represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and described the move as a normal part of the bargaining process.
Bennett said there are no plans for layoffs, but government is looking for a more efficient public service.
She also outlined how expensive many of the negotiated benefits are, saying wage premiums, severance and sick leave cost the province hundreds of millions of dollars.
A backgrounder distributed to reporters said those are some of the issues the government is looking to address with unions during the bargaining process.
The Liberal government is grappling with a projected $1.58-billion deficit. Last month Bennett and the premier outlined a plan to trim 287 management jobs to create a "leaner, flatter" public service, part of a goal to trim $244 million in spending.
Bennett said in November that unionized public servants will be asked to make sacrifices, but she hoped for "productive and open dialogue."