This article was featured in the Winter issue of the Union Stand
The political question of the summer of 2016 was one of “will they or won’t they?” The provincial Liberals were approaching their 3rd anniversary in power, Stephen McNeil was still very high in the polls and the Liberal “brand” was stronger than ever with Trudeau and the Federal Liberals still enjoying a honeymoon with Canadians from coast-to-coast, which was and is especially strong here in Atlantic Canada.
With the retirement of interim NDP leader Maureen MacDonald in the spring of 2016, Premier McNeil had to decide if or when to call the by-election in Halifax Needham. Everything seemed to favour the Premier: he was high in the polls; he had a great candidate who had been courted by all three parties; the new NDP leader was relatively unknown; and in 2013 the Liberals had only missed winning the riding by 277 votes.
The big question for the Premier was should he call a general election or use the by-election as a testing ground. After lots of speculation (much of it fed by the Premier himself), he decided to call a by-election in the heat of August, when very few people were actually paying attention to politics. With all the factors seeming to come out in his favour, the general consensus was that it was the Liberals’ seat to lose.
However, on the very same weekend that the Premier called the by-election, the NSGEU’s “Operation FOIPOP” released documents that clearly showed a political staffer had been asked for input on a job description for a civil service position, which she subsequently filled. This story and other stories bad for the Premier then seemed to spill out every other day and the Liberals fought most of the by-election on the defensive.
On election day, it was the NDP who came out on top with political newcomer Lisa Roberts winning the seat with over 50 per cent of the vote.
The Fall Sitting
With the by-election behind him, the Premier shelved any ideas of a general election and re-called the legislature for October 13th, 2016. The best description for the fall sitting would be vanilla with a few sprinkles. Liberals were well aware that they are approaching the end of their first term and wanted the session to be boring. A government in this position will rarely take on anything controversial and are holding the session so they can say they had one. The goal is always to come out unscathed.
For the most part, the Liberals were able to keep things pretty quiet. Bills weren’t drawing much attention, but on November 2nd, 2016 the Minister of Community Services introduced An Act Respecting Accessibility in Nova Scotia. It was meant to be a framework for government to work with communities, businesses and non-profit organizations to create accessibility standards. The Minister said it was a historic piece of legislation to much fanfare, but as the dust settled it became apparent that disabled Nova Scotians and other advocacy groups were very unhappy with the Bill and the fact that they had not been consulted (a hallmark of this McNeil government).
The Bill was held at Law Amendments where hearings will resume in late February and early March.
With this “hiccup” behind them the Legislature recessed on November 10th and the Liberals were looking forward to a smooth ride to this spring’s budget session that could lead into a general election soon after.
Bumps on the Road
Shortly before the House sitting in October, teachers in Nova Scotia had the potential to deliver a sizable bump to the Liberal government by giving Premier McNeil his first major deal on a collective agreement since taking office in 2013.
It seemed likely the teachers would ratify their tentative agreement with government on October 4th, but as the vote approached that outcome seemed less and less likely. Instead of a bump, the teachers delivered a “bump in the road” with a 70 per cent rejection of the tentative agreement.
Three weeks later, the rejection was solidified with a 96 per cent vote in favour of a strike. The NSTU requested conciliation in the days following, but government refused. However, following the end of the fall session, the government – through conciliation services – invited the teachers back to the table. Conciliation began on November 21st and broke off on November 25th and teachers announced they would begin to work to rule on December 5th.
On Sunday, December 4th, a snap Bill briefing was called and Minister Casey announced that the Liberals were going to introduce legislation the next day (Monday, December 5th) to impose a contract on teachers. At the same time, the Liberals decided to lock all students out of schools until the legislation could be passed. This whole ordeal was handled horribly by the Premier and his team. The announcement was made with no heads up to their own MLAs and parents across Nova Scotia were furious they were being given less than 24 hours to arrange childcare.
A Community Group “Students for Teachers” called for a protest at the Legislature supporting teachers, but in the end, the emergency session was called off, the legislation was never tabled and the fabricated crisis was forgotten by the Liberals.
Students returned to class the following day and the Premier was left licking his wounds over a self-inflicted bump in the road.
Another Bump in the Road – Civil Servants Vote
The NSGEU had announced that the long-awaited vote on the government’s final offer would take place December 12th through to the 14th. Having the results announced on December 14th was fitting as on that date in 2015, the Liberal government tabled Bill 148, Public Services Sustainability (2015) Act. This Act includes reference to the vast majority of the public sector employees in the province and has not yet been proclaimed or enacted.
This Bill dictates the same wage pattern found in the Employer’s final offer and similarly ends the PSA for all employees hired after April 1st, 2015 and freezes it for all employees as of April 1st, 2015. This Bill made it impossible for fair and open collective bargaining to happen.
Leading into the vote, in-person meetings and telephone town halls were held across Nova Scotia. The government remained confident that NSGEU members would simply accept the final offer, but on December 14th the results showed that the Civil Servants would not be bullied by the Liberals into signing an agreement where the Premier was trying to tear out long held and hard fought for clauses. NSGEU members voted 94 per cent against the employer’s final offer on December 14th. Following this vote, the union returned to the bargaining table with the employer for two days of negotiations, but it was apparent the Liberals were not ready to actually negotiate.
When parties are unable to achieve a mutual agreement, either the union or the employer can apply to the Labour Board for the help of conciliation services and this is exactly what the NSGEU did. We had conciliation dates set for March 2017, but government cancelled those and we are now looking at dates in April. In the interim, Premier McNeil is left without a signed collective agreement.
Teachers resumed conciliation on December 17th and this carried through to January 18th, 2017 when the teachers came to their third tentative agreement with a ratification vote called for February 9th.
This third tentative agreement didn’t sit well with teachers who didn’t like the idea of having to negotiate with Bill 148 hanging over their heads and the lack of any real progress in addressing classroom concerns. Teachers handily rejected the tentative agreement with a 78 per cent rejection vote. Yet another failure for the McNeil government in collective bargaining.
Stormy Days at the Legislature
Over the weekend of February 11th and 12th, the Premier announced his government’s intentions to recall the Legislature on February 13th to introduce Bill 75, an act that would legislate a contract on Nova Scotia teachers.
With a storm forecast in the House, it was fitting that Nova Scotia was hit by a blizzard on February 13th. After much public outcry, the Premier reluctantly was pressured into acting in the interest of safety, and delayed the start of the House to February 14th.
The entirety of the Nova Scotia Labour movement turned out to support teachers and show their anger that McNeil was once again using his majority in the House to trample on the rights of union members. From day one, everyone knew the Bill would pass, but the protests and rallies continued outside the House and across Nova Scotia, and the NSGEU was there every step of the way.
McNeil once again used all night sittings to ensure fast passage of the legislation, even though there was never a real emergency. The Liberals used their majority to block speakers at Law Amendments allowing just 68 of the 400 who asked to present the opportunity to speak their mind about the Bill.
Bill 75 passed on February 21st, legislating a contract on the teachers of Nova Scotia. This is the seventh piece of anti-labour legislation passed by the McNeil government.
What Happens Now?
Is it possible the Premier will come to his senses and use future conciliation dates to actually work to come to a fair agreement with our Civil Servants? Anything could happen, but with Bill 148 and the Premier’s past history, it’s highly unlikely.
Everyone knows an election is coming, but the timing is all up to the Premier.
The choice for NSGEU members could not be clearer: we need to work to un-elect this Premier and his MLAs across Nova Scotia. If they are allowed a second majority government, they will only be emboldened and most provisions within collective agreements for all NSGEU members will be at risk.
NSGEU members can vote McNeil out – or face the loss of the security you and your families currently have in your collective agreements.
Your choice is simple: vote or lose.