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.

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. This is the same Stephen McNeil who promised to maintain for 5 years the Film Industry Tax Credit FITC in the 2013 election on which a flourishing industry had been built.

    He then killed it without warning two years later.
    He did this without any sort of serious economic impact study, without consulting those within the industry who actually knew how its finances worked, and without even bothering to Google what happened when Saskatchewan tried something similar in 2012. This cut off millions of dollars in outside money from future NS productions and drove young, entrepreneurial, talented creatives and technicians to jurisdictions out west that continue to prosper under similar government incentives we once had. A PriceWaterhouseCoopers study later showed the assumptions on which MacNeil based this were dubious at best.

    He blamed the negative response from what was left of the industry for the lack of new production and AFAIK to this day refuses to accept responsibility for his actions – he was even quoted at one stage insisting he kept his promise to keep the FITC.

    The takeaway for me regarding the Crowns’ negotiations is that Stephen McNeil has already shown that he can be unbelievably reckless and that he does not respect his word. He can find money for boutique budget surpluses and the Yarmouth Ferry, but not to properly fund family doctors, teachers or crown prosecutors.

    Under the Liberals NS is going to Hell in a hand-basket – but boy, the books sure do look nice!

  2. How is it MacNeil is still in office? What a vile and despicable man he is. Guess what dickhead, collective bargaining is guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Only petty potentates like MacNeil might argue otherwise.

  3. As we witness the governmental approach to the Crown Attorneys, we need to think.

    We need to observe.

    At issue is the government’s view that it cannot set a wage pattern for other unions or positions or government employees,(choose the language that suits you).

    There is a flaw in this logic including to the one you note above.

    The yawning gap and absence of analysis are painful to observe.

    If we give all government workers the same wage increases or “pattern” we further entrench the already wide disparity and inequity in our province.

    No one dares speak it out loud, but the fact of the matter is that we have some provincial workers who are grossly underpaid, some moderately underpaid, some who are paid appropriately, some mildly overpaid and some who are grossly overpaid.

    At the end of the day, success will come when we adopt a more analytical, reasoned and factual approach.

    Would we want doctors, already grossly underpaid, to be held to a small increase whilst administrative staff, who are mildly to grossly overpaid, get the same wage increase? I posit that we would not. This would only increase the already excruciating disparity.

    We would be far better off if Health Care was managed at arm’s length with the government keeping its hands out it.

    When it is time for the next election, I think it will be important to ask who has the management chops to actually manage the public service.

    We have a serious problem in Nova Scotia. We have an unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy.
    It is an amorphous and unbounded group that desperately needs a strong political leader to both lead it and manage it. Leadership that inspires employees looks nothing like we have seen from Mr. McNeil.

    I have grown so weary of NSHA leaders and government leaders saying this is all too complex for us to understand.

    Really? Methinks perhaps they doth project too much.

    1. Doctors underpaid and administrative staff overpaid ????? Are you kidding me? It’s the other way around. Wow, you’ve really drunk the neoliberal koolaid. See El Jones’s article from today.