Stephen McNeil and the Crowns: Magic realism meets reality

After a crazy week of blind-siding legislation, insults, distortions, bluster, meaningless committee hearings and more fact-free moments than you’d find in a Trumpian White House, the province and its Crown attorneys are right back where they began — at the bargaining table. Well, not exactly as illustrated…

So let us review. On Mar. 31, 2019, the collective agreement between Crown prosecutors and the Nova Scotia government expired. As part of the previous contract, signed in June 2016, the prosecutors had agreed to accept a draconian wage package the government was imposing on all other public servants. At the same time, however, the government agreed to extend the prosecutors’ right to arbitration to settle contract disputes — which it had hard won in 2000 — for another 30 years.

Until 2046, that is.

A long time.

So that was the backdrop against which the two sides began bargaining for a new contract this spring. Their initial positions: the prosecutors wanted a 17 per cent wage increase over four years; the government countered with its standard 7.2 per wage increase over the same time frame.

The two sides met four times, twice in June and twice in October, including with a conciliator. According to Rick Woodburn, a member of the bargaining team, prosecutors “came down significantly” from their initial ask.

The universe seemed to be unfolding as it does in these workers’ contract cases. Give and take. Back and forth. It’s worth noting it took the same two sides almost 10 months to reach their last go-along-with-the-government-wage-freeze contract in 2016. Negotiations for the contract before that — the prosecutors’ first collective agreement — had gone on for six years and through two different governments (with no work stoppages or referrals to arbitration) before McNeil’s Liberals and the province’s prosecutors finally made labour peace with a five-year retroactive deal signed in 2016.

So it did not seem unusual, or unreasonable to assume, this year’s behind-closed-doors deal-making process would continue behind those closed doors for more sessions until the two sides emerged at some point with a new deal both would be somewhat unhappy with but both could live with for another four years.

Instead, on Wednesday, Oct. 16, without any discussion or even a polite, just-so-you-know notice of its change of plans, the government blindsided the prosecutors by introducing an already-prepared — with “t”s crossed and “i”s dotted — Bill 203, the Crown Attorneys’ Labour Relations Act. The bill effectively gutted the Crowns’ collective bargaining rights, removed their right to arbitration (the right the same government had extended for another 30 years back in 2016) and replaced it with a malignantly meaningless poison-pill right to strike, which was only a right so long as the prosecutors didn’t exercise it.

After that, predictably, all hell broke loose.

Most of the province’s 102 Crowns, who’d been scheduled to attend a professional development conference in Dartmouth, descended, locust-like, on Province House to decry the government’s bad-faith non-bargaining.

A photo of Stephen McNeil
Premier Stephen McNeil. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Stephen McNeil, as he is wont to do in any and all situations, rotely rejected any and all criticism and dismissed any and all counter-fact facts with his relentless we-can’t-afford-it mantra.

Can’t afford it…

Start with this. This is the same Stephen McNeil who bragged about racking up a $120-million surplus last year as if Nova Scotia Inc. was his private corporation and his highest ambition was to record a profit; the same Stephen McNeil who last week publicly danced around his refusal to even incrementally increase Nova Scotia’s minimum wage toward a $15-an-hour living wage; the same Stephen McNeil who still refuses to apologize for pouring $20 million of our tax dollars into the ocean this year alone to subsidize a ferry that failed to ferry anyone anywhere.

But I digress.

Let’s turn over the rock over on another McNeil fact-free fact. McNeil says he had no choice but to bring in his legislation because he can’t allow 102 prosecutors to set a wage pattern for the province’s 75,000 public sector workers.

The counter-fact fact. While “no one would accept that 100 people should establish whatever the rates of pay are for 75,000 people,” Halifax-based labour lawyer Ray Larkin testified before the legislature’s law amendments committee last week, they don’t. The salary ranges for Crown prosecutors, he explained, are actually compared, orange-to-orange relative to people who do similar jobs across the country, not their fellow Nova Scotia public-sector-worker licenced practical nurses or highways workers.

In fact, even if the prosecutors got all they asked for, their wages would still only be in the middle of the Canadian prosecutor pack.

If the prosecutors got all they asked for…

Fact-free Stephen: “We never thought, to be perfectly frank, that they would walk in with this kind of an ask of 17 per cent and never be prepared to move.” The Crowns, he said, were abusing their right to arbitration “to go around collective bargaining.”

Rick Woodburn again: “The government is saying we were stuck at 17 per cent. We recognize that the taxpayers aren’t necessarily going to foot the bill for Crown attorneys at 17 per cent, and we realized that at bargaining, so in bargaining, we brought our numbers down.”

I believe that is what’s known as collective bargaining.

Which is, of course, what the McNeil government itself is attempting to “go around.”

So, having concocted a messy mess of its own creation, the government wallowed in it.

Last week, the Liberals’ mindless-majority MLAs on the law amendments committee listened — without hearing — to a parade of expert witnesses.

  • Martin Hershorn, the province’s own non-partisan, “no-axe-to-grind” director of public prosecutions, testified the government’s legislation would threaten the viability and sustainability of a service that “stands between the people of this province and murderers, child molesters and thieves.”
  • Paul Cavalluzzo, a labour and constitutional lawyer with more than 40 years’ experience, declared flatly: “I can’t believe that any lawyer in this country that can spell the word ‘charter’ would find this law to be constitutional.”

Despite that, the Liberals’ pre-programmed voting automatons voted down an opposition motion to send the bill back so the government could at least consider what had been said.

Meanwhile, the Crowns had taken the only course of action open to them to make their displeasure known before the axe fell on their collective bargaining rights. Last Thursday, they walked off the job.

Mark Furey

In response, furious Justice Minister Mark Furey took the occasion to sandpaper the salt in the wounds of  future relationships between his government and the prosecutors, declaring the dispute was just “about money in their pocket,” and accusing the prosecutors of “putting their personal financial needs and desires ahead of the well-being of victims and survivors and that’s problematic.”

But, then, on Friday afternoon, like magic realism — real but not really real — it was all over.

The government, which had been so desperate to pass its urgently needed legislation it had increased the legislature’s sitting hours to ram it through, got what it wanted.

The bill passed.

After which the government immediately announced it had no plans to ask the lieutenant governor to proclaim the bill — which, remember, it had considered so urgent — the new law of the land.

“We will immediately go back to the negotiating table and work towards a solution,” declared a suddenly magnanimous Furey, who claimed his comments of the previous day were no longer operative. “My comments of yesterday were inappropriate and in no way reflect the high regard that I have for the public prosecution and the work that they do on behalf of all Nova Scotians.”

Uh… What just happened here?

Why are we, seemingly, back to exactly where we were before the Liberals introduced Bill 203 a little over a week ago. Back to the bargaining table discussing the terms of a new contract.

The reality, of course, is that we aren’t exactly back where we started. Yes, the government has agreed to return to the bargaining table. The province, Furey insists, is looking for “solutions” at the bargaining table. But no, the government isn’t saying it will allow prosecutors to use their right to seek arbitration — which still has an expiry date of 2046 — if the two sides can’t reach a deal.

What that really means is that if the government doesn’t get the “solutions” it wants at the negotiating table, it will simply pull Bill 203 out of its back pocket, declare it the law of the land, and get what it wants anyway.

Negotiating in good faith?

Stephen McNeil wins in the end. That’s still the game. Always.

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner October 28, 2019.

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