Now that the government has legislatively punted the possibility of a paramedics strike into the hands of a pick-one arbitrator — who will have to choose between dueling union and management last-best offers for wages and working conditions over the next three to five years — it’s time to ask ourselves a question.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Depending on who you believe — the government, the Liberal opposition, or the union respectively — Nova Scotia lost 26, 40 or 90 of its 750 paramedics in the past year or so to greener pastures, higher wages and better working conditions in other parts of Canada. Experienced paramedics in Alberta can earn $20–30,000 more a year than in Nova Scotia.
Even Health Minister David Wilson — a former paramedic whose government legislated the end to this strike-before-it-was-a- strike — acknowledges retaining paramedics can be “a real challenge.”
Worse, many of those leaving are those most in demand — highly-trained advanced care paramedics who can administer the kind of life-saving medications at emergencies that mean the difference between… well, life and death.
Wages aren’t the only negotiating glue pot. Union leader Terry Chapman claims paramedics who call in sick aren’t replaced on their shifts, adding stress to already overworked first responders. And there is currently no easy transition for older paramedics from the pressures of the ambulance to useful work in collaborative care units or emergency rooms.
“Morale,” Chapman says, “is at an all-time low.”
The union’s last contract expired in March 2011. Since then, paramedics have soundly rejected three offers, including two recommended by their union leadership. They rejected the most recent deal — which included a government-mandated defined-benefit pension sweetener — by an overwhelming 73 per cent.
The two sides are still far apart. Management’s last offer on the table called for an 11.1 per cent wage increase spread over nearly five years. The union’s final demand was a 15 per cent raise over three years.
Since the arbitrator must choose only one proposal, both sides must frantically sharpen their pencils over the next few weeks.
The only certainty seems to be that whatever decision the arbitrator makes will not drain the poison from this bargaining well.
That should concern us all.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber
Forget the Byzantine balls-up the attempt to unionize Canada’s junior hockey players became—league-hired private investigators snooping on union staff, falsely (maybe) intimating one was a felon; union (dis)organizers scheduling, then canceling votes—and ask ourselves two simple questions: First, do run-of-the-litter junior hockey players, the ones least likely to lose millions in the next NHL lockout, have legitimate grievances? And, second, what the hell was Jamie Baillie thinking?
Working conditions in major junior hockey have undoubtedly improved in the last 20 years. Team owners pay more than lip service to ensuring their school-aged players actually attend school. Some, like the Halifax Mooseheads, provide tutors who travel with the team. The Mooseheads organization itself has a deserved reputation for treating its teenaged charges—and their families—very well.
That said, playing major junior hockey is a far-more-than-part-time burger-flipping after school job. Living away from family and friends at 16, year-round training, practices, games, road trips, promotional appearances, charity involvements… not to forget the possibility of being cut, traded, or suffering a career-ending, life-affecting injury. All while going to school, growing up and, for most, coming to terms with the end of their NHL dreams.
For that, players are paid anywhere from $35 to $120 a week, depending on age. While Mooseheads owner Bobby Smith is correct to argue that doesn’t begin to cover the team’s investment in its players—providing billet families, trainers, even psychologists—the reality is players haven’t had a raise in years. And most CHL teams make a lot of money from the fruits of their teenagers’ labours.
The most egregious inequity involves the league’s education package. While it ostensibly offers players a year of post-secondary education for every year they play, there are so many caveats and loopholes very few take full advantage.
Which brings us to Jamie Baillie. When the Tory leader heard about the union drive, his first response was not to ask whether the teenagers had a legitimate grievance but to fret team owners would have to increase ticket prices to maintain their profits. And then to Chicken-Little suggest—falsely—this national organizing drive was the result of the provincial government’s first-contract legislation last year.
Jamie, Jamie, Jamie...
Two minutes in the penalty box for playing politics and a game misconduct for caring more about team profits than teenagers.
Last week’s to-the-edge-of-the-ledge, past-the-last-minute contract settlement between Capital Health and its 3,600 health workers raises all sorts of difficult but intriguing questions.
The first, and most immediate, of course, is could the disruption—even without an actual strike, the anticipation cancelled 560 elective surgeries and emptied 172 beds—have been avoided?
The short answer is probably not. Both sides have legitimate, vital interests in the outcome and only the combined pressure of a looming deadline and smacking up against the real-life consequences of not settling creates the conditions necessary for compromise.
So long as there is collective bargaining, we will have brinkmanship.
But should we even have collective bargaining in health care? Let’s come back to that.
Is the settlement fair? We won’t know the full financial implications until an arbitrator picks either the union’s (nine per cent over three years) or the province’s (6.5 per cent) final position. The province’s finance department has undoubtedly already crunched both scenarios, so Premier Darrell Dexter should disclose them so we can discuss their merits now.
This year’s provincial budget includes a $199-million “restructuring” line item, supposedly to cover contract settlement contingencies above the government’s hoped-for one per cent salary increases, so the deal may not deflect the government’s goal of balancing the books by next year. But it will raise the bar for other public sector workers.
Other numbers also come into play when asking if the settlement makes sense. Nova Scotians’ cost of living increased by 3.7 per cent last year while wage settlements barely nudged 0.4 per cent. Even the union’s final demand just keeps pace with cost-of-living increases.
One more, different set of “numbers:” the settlement calls for an across-the-board wage increase, meaning those at the lowest end of the union’s 100 or so different job categories—those who need more most—will get the least. How fair is that?
Back to collective bargaining and essential services. Given that the final salary settlement ended up in the hands of an arbitrator anyway, why not cut to the chase and ban strikes in health care?
That, my friend, is a whole other discussion. What do you think?
Why did Nova Scotia business wail wolf over first contract legislation?
On Dec. 14, 2011, Sobeys announced it was swallowing whole every one of Shell Canada’s 250 service stations east of Ontario.
No big deal. The day before, Empire, which controls the Canadian super-sized supermarket chain, had reported a quarterly profit of $78.1 million. Sobeys had the cash to buy whatever it wanted. Buying Shell’s stations offered the company “an exciting opportunity” to expand its own already expanding retail gas bar-convenience store network. Fair enough.
What was most interesting about the deal, however, was what was unsaid. Twenty-three of the service stations were in Nova Scotia.
Five days before, the Nova Scotia legislature had passed “totally unnecessary” legislation Sobeys that declared would “do serious damage” to the province’s business investment climate. During a rare appearance before the legislature’s law amendments committee, the company hinted ominously that if the government passed its proposed business-busting bill, it would . . . well, “affect” how Sobeys (Nova Scotia’s largest retail employer) did business in its native province.
Take that, Darrell Dexter!
What had the NDP government done to wrap Sobeys’ knickers in a knot?
The legislation, known as Bill 102, provides for something called first-contract arbitration. It’s specifically tailored for those rare situations when newly unionized workers and their employers can’t reach a first contract themselves — perhaps because the employer refuses to negotiate, or the union demands the moon, or the company and workers simply aren’t used to bargaining collectively. If the two sides can’t settle their differences in a reasonable time, an arbitrator can impose a one-time contract.
Such legislation is commonplace. The first first-contract arbitration law in Canada was passed in British Columbia in 1974. “Employer-unfriendly” B.C., of course, is where Sobeys spent $260 million to buy up a rival supermarket chain in 2007. And Quebec — where most of Sobeys new Shell stations are located — has had such legislation since 1978.
Today, six provinces and the federal government all have some form of first-contract arbitration. Eighty per cent of Canadian workers, including the 15 per cent of Nova Scotians employed in federally regulated enterprises, are covered.
Those laws haven’t, as its Chicken-Little critics contend, encouraged workers to recklessly embrace evil unions. Canada’s unionization rate has been declining in every province for decades.
The law is rarely used. In Manitoba (the province on which Nova Scotia’s legislation is based), there were just six applications for first-contract arbitration from 42 newly unionized workplaces in 2009-10. Only two of those resulted in imposed contracts.
In fact, studies show the mere existence of legislation increases the chances of a negotiated contract and reduces work stoppages by a “statistically significant” 65 per cent. Not a bad outcome, surely.
And it isn’t just unhappy unions that apply. In British Columbia, fully one-third of arbitration applications come from employers.
So . . . why did Nova Scotia businesses wail “wolf” over first-contract arbitration?
“Fundamentally, every employer needs to be in the position of determining wages, benefits and working conditions,” the Nova Scotia Employers’ Roundtable says. A consortium of 21 of the province’s most powerful non-union employers (including Sobeys, Michelin, Irving, Nova Scotia Power, Wal-Mart Canada, Killam Properties and Oxford Frozen Foods), it wrote a lecturing letter to Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter last Fall insisting that companies alone “ultimately have the right to say ‘no’ if it in good faith considers that doing otherwise would adversely impact its interests.” (They apparently haven’t read Section 2(d) of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which includes collective bargaining rights, but that’s another story.)
Businesses want governments to butt out of their business — except when they don’t. Then they want governments to do their bidding.
In Nova Scotia, for example, where employers have traditionally wielded unfettered control over their workplaces, powerful, and powerfully anti-union companies like Michelin have been able to bully governments on several occasions to rewrite provincial labour laws to make it impossible for the company’s workers to organize, let alone bargain for a first contract. Those laws are still on the books.
First-contract legislation is now law. Will companies like Sobeys stop investing because of it? Will the union hordes descend? Will the sky fall? Stay tuned, but don’t hold your breath.
From the March/April 2012 issue of Atlantic Business Magazine.
With 760 bus drivers walking picket lines, 130 brewery workers on the edge of lockout, 870 professors voting to strike and 3,800 health care workers heading for conciliation, it’s no surprise news that 36 provincial court judges have a new three-year deal with the province passed almost entirely unnoticed.
Judges don’t actually negotiate their salaries. That would be unseemly. An association speaks for them—sort of a union, but with a gentler sounding name and less formal power. Who needs formal power when you’re speaking for judges?
Judges can’t strike. A three-member tribunal hears submissions from their association, the government and anyone else who cares to comment. The tribunal considers those arguments and then decides. Binding arbitration, if you will, but without the baggage.
The ostensible reason for all this non-negotiating negotiating is to “maintain the independence of the judiciary,” so they can’t be “corrupted by the temptation to curry favour among certain litigants in order to gain financial advantage.”
Judges, of course, have mortgages, families, needs and wants. Not to mention jealousies that judges in other jurisdictions get more than they do. Their issues aren’t that different from us lesser mortals. Salaries, pensions, perks.
So how did the judges do?
Not badly. During the past 10 years, in fact, provincial court judges’ salaries in Nova Scotia increased from $144,000 to $207,577.
And, while the province is committed to holding the line at one per cent for other public servants, the tribunal decided judges needed three per cent. New salary: $214,000.
Pensions? The tribunal decided the public service pension plan, which caps indexing for everyone else at 1.25 per cent, isn’t sweet enough. Judges’ pensions—paid out of the same pot—will be indexed at 75 per cent of the consumer price index to a maximum of five per cent.
I’m not quibbling with the specifics.
But I would note that three per cent of a judge’s salary adds up to close to $7,000 more a year, while one per cent of the average Nova Scotian’s salary—$39,500—totals less than $400 a year.
The gap between those who have and those who don’t grows. Still. Again.
So let me see if I have this right.
When workers are at their most vulnerable—when, for example, they’ve decided to join a union and are attempting to negotiate a first contract with a more powerful, perhaps hostile employer—Jamie Baillie is a champion of free collective bargaining. Let the chips fall where they may… so long as they fall the way of Michelin and Sobeys.
On the other hand, when workers have some leverage—when, to pick another example out of the ether, transit workers vote 98.4 per cent to stop driving their buses to put pressure on the employer to negotiate better terms—Jamie Baillie thinks collective bargaining is a crock and wants the premier to legislate them back to work. Immediately.
At least the Tory leader is consistent in his inconsistency.
When given the choice, Baillie will inevitably come down on the side of the over-dog.
Baillie doesn’t put it that way, of course. “I’m a believer in collective bargaining,” he declared disingenuously Friday.
Baillie’s idea of collective bargaining? The premier should lock both sides in his office, “tell them they’ve got 12 hours to work out their differences and if they’re not able to do so, then he’ll settle it himself.”
How would Baillie settle it? While he doesn’t offer specifics—three guesses on which side he would pick as premier—Baillie did say he wants the province to consider declaring transit an essential service so future collective bargaining could be rendered meaningless.
He’s a “believer” all right.
I will confess I’m not sure who’s right and who’s wrong in the current strike—or if the answer to that question can be one or the other.
But I do know both sides are under enormous pressure to find a settlement. Union members face the daunting prospect of buying groceries and paying mortgages on meagre strike pay. Management has to know that if the strike drags on it risks a permanent loss of riders to carpooling, biking and walking.
There may come a time when legislation is necessary. But not yet. Let the two sides bargain collectively. Without meddling from “believers” like Baillie.