So Nova Scotia’s largest non-union employers are eager to preserve an unfettered collective bargaining process. They are, they claim, deeply concerned about “a third party deciding what will be the appropriate terms and conditions of employment.”
Where were they when the Harper government systematically ripped the guts out of that process during the recent Air Canada and Canada Post disputes?
Oh, right. They don’t want to preserve collective bargaining; they want to prevent it.
Last week, the Nova Scotia Employers’ Roundtable—made up of 21 employers “representing” 34,000 workers—sent a letter to Premier Darrell Dexter, expressing horror at even the whiff his government might contemplate “first contract arbitration” legislation.
First contract arbitration is specifically designed to protect workers who choose to join a union and whose employers then refuse to bargain in good faith on a first contract. It happens—rarely, but it does. When it does, the legislation provides, initially, for conciliation or mediation. If that fails, there is the big stick of an imposed settlement. Studies show the threat of first contract arbitration increases the chances of a negotiated contract and reduces work stoppages by a “statistically significant” 65 per cent.
Conservative leader Jamie Baillie calls it a “crazy idea” and warns it will be a job killer.
Really? Six provinces and the federal government have similar laws. Eighty 80 per cent of Canadian workers—including the 15 per cent of Nova Scotians working in federally regulated industries—are already covered.
Where are all those dead jobs, Jamie?
For his part, Liberal leader Stephen McNeil frets such legislation will tilt the balance in favour of workers.
Earth to Stephen. During the 1970s, Nova Scotia governments—at the behest of powerful, and powerfully anti-union, Michelin Tire—rewrote the province’s labour laws on several occasions to make it virtually impossible for the company’s workers to organize, let alone bargain for a first contract. Those laws are still on the books.
Tilt the balance? Perhaps it’s time to take the corporate thumb—and fist—off the scale.
And perhaps—just perhaps—it’s time Stephen McNeil and Jamie Baillie stopped shilling for the powerful and spoke for the least powerful, including unorganized workers.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Kimber
So here’s my question. Who speaks for workers in the 82 per cent of businesses in Nova Scotia whose employees are not represented by a union?
I ask this in light of the recent foofarah over Bill 100, the innocuous-sounding Act to Establish a Unified Labour Board.
The Dexter government claimed it was merely tinkering—merging a bunch of labour boards, creating a labour-management review committee to advise on legislation, clarifying long-standing policy regarding union successor rights when government operations are privatized, making the act’s preamble conform to what’s been in the Canada Labour Code since 1972...
Nova Scotia’s non-union employers, on the other hand, saw socialist Armageddon writ large in invisible ink behind the bill’s bland but—cue-the-ominous-music—“complicated legal wording.”
They were so concerned, in fact, 19 of our most powerful, best-heeled business organizations banded together to fight the power. They wrote an open letter to the premier demanding sections of the bill be scrapped. They cozied up to the opposition, encouraging their filibuster. They even wangled an hour-long face-to-face with Labour Minister Marilyn More to plead their case.
In the end, they got most of what they’d demanded, including the right to be consulted in discussions on changes to labour legislation.
We probably don’t need to lose sleep over whether deep-pocketed business groups will be able to make their voices heard—with or without these amendments.
But what about minimum wage workers? Contract employees? Shop clerks? Telemarketers? Apple pickers? The least powerful among the 70 per cent of workers not represented by unions. Their interests—a living wage, reasonable hours, jobs with benefits, protection from arbitrary employer action—sure as hell won’t get represented by some bleeding-wallet private sector employer.
The opposition parties? “If business is happy,” Liberal leader Stephen McNeil summed up during last week’s legislative dust-up, “we’ll help move this bill forward.” No comfort there.
Trade unions, once the vanguard of championing all workers’ rights, are under siege and in retreat. Too often, they seem more concerned with hanging on to existing entitlements than in extending benefits to the unorganized.
So who will speak for the interests of workers not in unions? That’s still my question.
Copyright 2010 Stephen Kimber
Parent’s disappointment is disingenuous
So poor, put-upon Labour Minister Mark Parent is “disappointed” in Nova Scotia’s health care union leaders for refusing to meet with him face-to-face, man-to-man, cabinet-minister-to-lowly peon so he could lay before their wondering eyes the glorious, gory details of exactly how his government intends to take away their members’ right to strike.
By the minister’s own reckoning, Monday’s non-meeting with union leaders marked the sixth different non-occasion since June 18 to which he’s generously invited union leaders to come on down and converse over canapés on whether they would prefer to be hanged, drawn and quartered, or simply put out of their misery with a sudden, heart-stopping burst of electrical current. It was also, the minister allowed more in sorrow than anger, the sixth separate time the unions had ungraciously, unaccountably said no thanks.
Which is why Mark Parent, like the parent of a too-puzzling-for-words teenager, is just s-o-o-o disappointed. “When you sit down together and talk, some interesting things can happen,” he lamented. All he ever wanted, he added — cue the violins — was for the unions “to consult with me [on how] to make the collective bargaining process work better, and that’s really what we’re offering.”
Uh, not really.
If that’s actually what Parent and the MacDonald government had in mind in the aftermath of last April’s 16-hour mini-strike at the IWK Health Centre, all they had to do was open a public dialogue, not only with the unions and the representatives of the province’s health care employers but also with the rest of us.
If the government had framed the question as — let’s say, for the sake of argument — “Is there a better way to deal with labour disputes in the critical health care sector?” then the unions might very well have been keen and active participants in that discussion. And, out of that discussion, what the minister calls “interesting things” might actually have happened.
Because the discussion then would have actually been a discussion.
Instead, the government began with a narrow and non-negotiable premise: We are eliminating your right to strike; how do you think the dirty deed should best be accomplished?
Despite the many and very real crises the province’s health care system faces — too long wait times for all manner of tests and procedures, shuttered emergency rooms, lack of family physicians in rural communities, spiraling out of control costs — the government has done its level best to make the non-issue of health care workers’ right to strike the sole centerpiece of its fall legislative agenda.
Not because of Premier Rodney MacDonald’s much ballyhooed “concern for patient health and safety,” or because labour disruptions in health care are such a pressing issue for Nova Scotians — the IWK strike was the first since 1981, and it lasted less than a day — but because this government sees attacking health care workers’ right to strike as a potential vote-getting diversion from its own many and well documented failures to come to grips with the real health care problems we face.
Will it work?
It will if Rodney MacDonald’s government can frame the question as narrowly as a recent Bristol Omnifacts Research poll for the Daily News, which essentially asked respondents if they thought strikes are the best way to deal with labour disputes in the health care sector: “Using a scale of 1 to 10,” the pollsters asked, “how acceptable do you consider [strikes] as a means of resolving labour disputes in health care?”
Ask a dumb question; you get the answer you were looking for.
The MacDonald government’s hail-Mary hope of winning the next election is now based on making Nova Scotians believe that that is the question, and the only health care question worth asking. If they can engineer their own defeat by pressing ahead with legislation the opposition parties have promised to vote against and then successfully cast their opponents as pro-strike, anti-health care, they might just be able to pull it off.
But I’m guessing Nova Scotians are smarter than that.
Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King's College. His column, Kimber's Nova Scotia, appears in The Sunday Daily News.
Copyright 2007 Stephen Kimber
Health care strikes not the issue
It is intriguing to watch politically tin-eared, ideologically wrong-headed Rodney — the premier who couldn’t make up his many minds on Sunday shopping until it was too late for him to claim anything but blame — now relentlessly clutching between his teeth the chewed, spit-up bone of legislation to outlaw strikes by health care workers, even after the Opposition parties had well and truly cremated the cadaver.
“The issue,” the premier bravely insisted to reporters last week after both opposition parties announced they wouldn’t support his minority government’s anti-strike legislation, “is long from over.”
The real question is how did it get started in the first place.
Back in May, less than two weeks after a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, 15-hour strike by 600 workers at the IWK Health Centre resulted in the cancellation of 59 surgeries, the discharge of 30 youths with mental illnesses and the rescheduling of 474 appointments, MacDonald called a press conference to dramatically declare that “our current system of resolving impasses has failed all of us… Moreover, I believe it is destined to fail again.”
Therefore, he said, his government had no choice but to introduce legislation to create a new “dispute resolution system” for health care workers in order to “protect the health and safety of Nova Scotians” from all those greedy, villainous, care-only-for-themselves nurses, technologists, therapists and other front-line health care workers who have hijacked our health care system with all their many and various outrageous demands and strikes and walkouts and…
Uhh… Wait a minute.
The actual, long-term consequences of the IWK strike, while certainly unfortunate, were probably not much worse than a typical winter storm. And, while no one likes to see such disruptions, especially at a hospital dedicated to the care of children and women, the reality is that there haven’t been a lot of labour stoppages in our health care system.
According to union statistics, in fact, there have been just three health care workers’ strikes in the past 25 years. The government has puffed up that number to 100 “separate work stoppages,” apparently by totaling up the number of institutions affected by each strike. But however the government wants to fiddle the numbers, the reality is that most Nova Scotians — for very good reasons — don’t see strikes by health care workers as a matter of major import.
That’s because there are lots of other real health care issues for them to worry about.
The shortage of doctors and nurses willing to practise in rural Nova Scotia, for example. The continuing closures of emergency rooms all over this province. The too-long wait times to see some specialists…
And yet this government chooses to train all its legislative and political resources on what is essentially a non-issue.
The government has done its best to spin the story dizzy. Labour Minister Mark Parent, for example, has tried to claim he has only the health care workers’ best interests in mind. “I believe the truth is that health-care workers are focused on helping others,” he wrote in a paternalistic op-ed piece last week, “and don't want the stressful internal conflict that comes with the prospect of a strike.” But the reality is that 94 per cent of those dedicated, stressed-out health care workers at the IWK felt they had no choice but to vote in favour of strike action last spring. Not because they wanted to strike. But because they wanted what they considered a fair settlement.
MacDonald himself still seems to believe he can still score political points with legislation he now knows could force an election. “Regardless of what has been said the last couple of days,” he told reporters last week, “I believe that the people of Nova Scotia want the government to move forward with this legislation and I hope that both of the opposition parties, once they see the legislation, will be supportive.”
Ironically, even as he tried to make the case against strikes, however, he helped make a more compelling one against his own government’s many health care failures.
“The question I’m going to ask him,” MacDonald said of Liberal leader Stephen McNeil’s decision not to support the legislation, “is how many appointments is it OK to cancel? One thousand? Five hundred? How many minutes is it OK for someone to wait in an emergency situation?...”
Good question, Mr. Premier. Perhaps you’d like to answer that question in Digby where the lights go out in the emergency room on a regular basis — not because of any labour dispute but because there aren’t enough doctors to staff the place.
Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. His column, “Kimber’s Nova Scotia,” appears in the Sunday Daily News.
Copyright 2007 Stephen Kimber