Does Stephen McNeil believe in workers’ rights? Next question

Our premier prefers to attack those who dare to question him. Just ask the unarmed, unionized compliance officer recovering from an assault at our border, or the Crown attorneys reprimanded for trying to protect their collective rights.

Stephen McNeil at July 9 briefing. (Communications Nova Scotia)

Quick question. Does Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil believe in Section 2(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is to say freedom of association, or, more precisely, the right of workers to freely organize and be meaningfully represented by the union of their choice? Next question.

Let us begin from the latest fronts of McNeil’s war on workers and their unions.

Last Wednesday evening shortly before 8 pm at the scale house near the Fort Lawrence crossing of the border between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, an unarmed Nova Scotia government compliance officer conducting a routine inspection was physically assaulted by a truck driver. The driver, in the words of Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union President Jason MacLean, “got angry and went after [the officer] and grabbed him by the neck and assaulted him.”

Two nearby conservation officers intervened and held the man until police could arrive. He has since been charged with assaulting a peace officer and breach of conditions.

Why did the driver get angry? “I can’t make it up why the person got upset,” MacLean said, reasonably enough, “but one could figure, maybe they waited a long time at the border, [but] maybe they didn’t.”

Since the opening of the Atlantic Bubble on July 3, travelers, including on-the-clock truck drivers, have faced significant delays at the border. On Thursday, CTV reported delays of up to three hours, creating havoc for essential workers with jobs on the opposite side of the border, as well as for commercial drivers. “Some truck drivers say they are being held up for hours and are missing their delivery times, prompting calls for a clearly marked and enforced lane for truckers only.”

As for the compliance officer, MacLean reported he was shaken up and sore as a result of the attack. “This is something that has been ongoing with this group of workers, our vehicle compliance officers, for some time,” he told the CBC. The officers work alone and are equipped with only a phone. “We’ve been advocating for them to have more defensive weapons, such as pepper spray or batons or things of that nature, not to go out and enforce anything on people, but to be able to protect themselves if a situation like this does arise.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the incident prompted questions at the premier’s COVID-19 briefing the next day, including from CTV’s Natasha Pace.

Initially, McNeil’s response was what you might expect/hope. He called the assault “concerning” and said, “I do want to thank the tremendous work that has been happening by the members of the public service, and I continue to look forward to work with them,” and blah blah blah.

But Pace, citing three or four incidents in the past several months in which officers had been attacked, followed up by asking if the premier was prepared to talk with the union about “providing more training, providing more protective equipment that they say workers need?”

At which point, a testy premier pivoted from issue deflection to an aggressive attack on the union: “To me, the union has looked at every opportunity to complain and looked to divide,” he declared. There is nothing new in this. From the day he was elected, McNeil has set out to destroy the union, which represents the majority of Nova Scotia’s public sector workers.

Then at the end of the news conference—as my colleague Tim Bousquet noted in  Friday’s Morning File—McNeil returned, unbidden, to his favourite target. “There are those out there who thrive on the negative, who misinform to suit their own purposes, and who distort the facts to divide us. Let’s not let that happen.”

Uh… about that call for more training, more protective equipment? “Have a great weekend,” the premier declared. “Stay positive and stay safe.”

Thanks for that.

Last week, we also learned letters of discipline had been placed in the personnel files of each unionized Nova Scotia Crown attorney who participated in last fall’s job action to protest government legislation.

That legislation, unilaterally and without consultation, revoked the Crowns’ right to binding arbitration, which its association had won in the previous round of collective bargaining as a trade-off for accepting a government wage restraint package.

But as soon as the prosecutors indicated they would seek arbitration in this round of bargaining to settle their going-nowhere negotiations with the McNeil government, the government smashed down its legislative hammer and took away their “right.”

While the government did pass the new law despite two days of protests and job actions by the Crowns, it didn’t proclaim it. Instead, it immediately agreed to return to the bargaining table and negotiated a much more favourable contract than the one the Crowns had previously rejected. Justice Minister Mark Furey even publicly apologized for incendiary and “inappropriate” comments he’d made about the prosecutors and the work they do.

All good. All done. Back to work.

Not quite. In April of this year in the middle of what was supposed to be the all-hands-on-deck pandemic response, Laura Lee Langley, Nova Scotia’s public service commissioner, quietly sent letters to each of the Crowns. Without referring to the events that had led to their protest or its purpose, Langley wrote:

“This behaviour is considered insubordinate and unprofessional; it is unacceptable and must not reoccur… Additionally, as a civil servant, you owe a duty of loyalty to your employer and are expected to support the efforts of our elected government to develop and implement law and public policy. Instead actions of the [Nova Scotia Crown Attorney Association] were harmful to the trust and confidence of elected officials and the citizens we serve… I have determined that written discipline is warranted under the circumstances.”

While Langley signed the letters—which now become damaging additions to each lawyer’s personnel file—we can reasonably assume she didn’t decide to send those letters on her own.

They were yet another Stephen McNeil punishment targeting unionized workers who dared to question him or his government.

Last week, a lawyer for the Crowns announced they are asking for a judicial review of the government’s action.

And so it goes


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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