The first major contract signed by the Nova Scotia government of Premier Tim Houston turned out to be a quiet affair lacking the confrontation and conflict that characterized labour relations under the previous Liberal government.
An interest arbitration award on Wednesday established terms for a new collective agreement — including wage increases — between the province and approximately 8,000 members of the public service who are represented by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.
Both sides requested the appointment of an interest arbitration board to get the deal over the finish line.
NSGEU president Sandra Mullen said in an interview that after eight years of dealing with the Liberals' hard line approach to negotiating, they saw an effort on the part of the Tories for real bargaining.
"We are pleased to see a break in pattern," she said. "It's a step in the right direction for addressing the issues of the extremely high inflationary issues that our members are facing."
Wage increases and other changes
The three-year contract is retroactive to April 1, 2021. It includes a 1.5 per cent wage increase retroactive to that date, a 1.5 per cent increase retroactive to April 1 of this year, and will be followed by a three per cent increase on April 1, 2023, and 0.5 per cent increase on March 31, 2024.
A spokesperson for the provincial government said the total cost of the three-year agreement by the end of the contract will be about $38 million. A one per cent increase across all government workers would amount to about $60 million.
A statement attributed to Labour Relations Minister Allan MacMaster said his government is committed to fair and meaningful collective bargaining with unions.
"Both sides showed a strong commitment to find common ground and we believe this settlement is fair to all parties," he said. "This mediated settlement can be managed within our fiscal plan."
Along with wage increases, Mullen said the union was also pleased to get improved contract language around workplace issues and vacation, and the creation of committees to address issues such as pay equity and working conditions for social workers in child protection programs.
Hoping for a fourth year
The employer will be able to designate up to 10 job postings per year to Indigenous people, persons with disabilities, Black Nova Scotians, other racialized people and women in roles in which they are underrepresented, without union approval. The two sides could agree to increase that number.
Mullen said the union was hoping for a four-year contract, which could have further addressed inflation concerns — and pushed off a return to the bargaining table — but it wasn't possible. Still, she said the union is pleased the raise in the final year of the contract is front loaded. She said she hopes the new contract helps address issues with retention and recruitment of staff.
The relatively smooth path this contract result took is a departure from the days of the former Liberal government, where labour unrest and major protests at Province House were a hallmark for former premier Stephen McNeil's time in office.
More often than not, the Liberals used legislation to impose contracts and wage patterns on unions, efforts that have since been challenged in the courts. Already, the courts have ruled against the process the Liberals used to settle a contract with provincial court judges and the legislation the Liberals used to impose wage patterns on unions across the province, Bill 148, was also heavily litigated.
The Tories have since signalled they could be backing away from a campaign promise to repeal that legislation.
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