Major labour contracts remain unsigned as Nova Scotia budget looms

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Arbitration panel awards Nova Scotia civil servants 7% wage hike over 6 years

Finance Minister Randy Delorey is going to have to use best estimates for the cost of contracts with two of the province's largest public sector groups when he introduces a budget in the coming weeks.

While the government recently imposed a contract on teachers, it still has no deal with members of the civil service or health-care workers. Conciliation for the NSGEU-represented civil service is set for April 19 and 20, but dates are nowhere in sight for health-care talks.

Delorey is scheduled to address the Halifax Chamber of Commerce on March 28. The pre-budget speech is usually just a few weeks before the actual document is introduced at Province House.

In the absence of signed contracts, Delorey said budgets use best estimates. In this case that means the first increase — one per cent — contained in the four-year wage package his government has offered every union in the province.

'Not much' government can do about delays

The minister said he'd prefer to have deals with everyone by now, but said this is the process. He noted there was a tentative agreement with the NSGEU in November 2015, but it was more than a year before members voted on, and ultimately rejected, that offer.

"When you have delays like that, outside of our control, there's not much we can do on that side of it."

NSGEU president Jason MacLean said he's "not overly confident a deal can be had."

He noted the two sides were supposed to go to conciliation this month, but the government called it off just before March. When asked about the date change, Delorey said "there was a lot going on and a lot of the staff that would be involved were quite busy."

MacLean has another view.

"They had Bill 75 that they had just passed and they didn't want to run right into some more trouble."

Health talks slow-going

Health-care talks are between employers the Nova Scotia Health Authority and IWK Health Centre and a council of unions, which includes some combination of CUPE, the NSGEU, Unifor and the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union for each of four contracts.

The process has been slow. Both sides have cancelled dates and the last time they actually met was in the fall. There are also two complaints before the labour board, one each from the employer and council of unions.

A health authority spokesperson said the two sides are working on setting dates to discuss the process to use for negotiations. Nurses' union president Janet Hazelton said the process is particularly intense because it's the first time bargaining since the merger of the district health authorities.

That means taking collective agreements for four unions and making them one, going through every clause and finding consensus in each case.

"It's an incredible amount of work," said Hazelton.

Belief an election is coming

Hazelton said another unique aspect this time around is money, which typically is the last thing discussed, has been settled in the government's mind even before the process has started.

She speculated it would mean getting a deal will be difficult.

"We're in no hurry to get to the table to get what they're offering. It's the employer that needs us to get to the table to try and figure out how to operate with one collective agreement."

A conciliation date is also set for April 24 for highway workers represented by CUPE.

But MacLean believes their dates may become moot. It's his belief Premier Stephen McNeil will call an election shortly after the budget is introduced.