Public sector contracts: A chance to improve N.S. labour relations, government

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Speaking of what could be the noisiest and most divisive events in Nova Scotia politics this year -- public sector contracts -- would it be too radical to suggest that the various parties rethink their ingrained habits, exercise some self-restraint and attempt to settle matters for the common good of this province?

By various parties, I mean governments, unions and -- let me add another one -- the media. Let me start with my own gang. The morning of New Year's Eve, my coffee almost came up through my nose when I saw the headline across the top of this newspaper: "Public sector under siege."

The public sector is under threat of destruction, then, like Babylon overrun by the Persians. We do exaggerate. TV is worse. When this stuff hits, you can expect the camera to be cruising the streets for the biggest loudmouths and the halls of government for the most ineptly provocative statement. Black and white TV never left. Let's chill on this, guys.

Then there's Premier Stephen McNeil. His popularity in the latest poll was at 64 per cent -- an unprecedented honeymoon for a new government going into its second year. A large part of the reason is no doubt his intentions to get some order into the chaos of public-sector bargaining and to restrain salaries, pensions and perks that are running ahead of the economy.

He's right to do so. The devil's in the details, of course, and there have been some aggravations already, but for now he's got the high ground -- the first premier to find himself there in a long time. The temptation to be resisted -- for him and those around him -- is to play this for political advantage. And even if the temptation is resisted, there will be accusations of politics, and so avoiding even the perception of politics is important. For McNeil, here's the challenge: a plan with a reasonable chance of succeeding, no angry speeches, a careful weighing of every word and a delicately depoliticized operation.

As for the unions, I would think there's an awareness within their membership that they've been running unsustainably ahead of the game, especially regarding pensions, and that the unpensioned masses see their position as privileged. (In that regard, MLA and cabinet minister pensions are an even greater part of the problem, at least symbolically -- shaving them down is an almost necessary beginning.) Also, the union rhetoric derived from the real (private-sector) trade union battles of the past wears thin if you're actually doing better than average.

For the unions, whose DNA is geared to get more, to defend every gain to the hilt, to denounce every pushback as an attempt to break the union, and who are used to having governments cave in to buy peace until the next contract, putting water in their wine won't come easy.

However, with unions as with the society in general, one of the rare elements we're looking for is confidence in government. Suspicion and distrust are in huge oversupply. Only a process that is deemed straightforward and free of ulterior motives will buy that difficult combination of peace and restraint in contract settlements.

Then there's the question of how to proceed. In terms of labour relations, I was impressed with what happened at this newspaper this fall. Newspapers being like governments in terms of the financial pinch, the paper announced it had to save $1.4 million from the newsroom budget and there would be layoffs. The paper and its newsroom union bargained it out and came to an agreement as to how it would happen, minimizing the pain.

There have been similar procedures in some North American provincial and state jurisdictions. Why not here? Come to a large conclusion about what has to be done, then engage the unions in how to do it, and meanwhile hopefully improve the bad atmosphere that exists in many corners of the provincial bureaucracy, which is a related issue.

The Broten report on taxes and regulations, talking about the need to make government more efficient, said this: "The provincial government needs to get better at engaging provincial public servants" and at "asking employees and citizens what they would do to improve operations," pointing out that beyond better processes and business models, the challenge is to change the institutional culture.

So this is more than about contracts. It's about our long-term struggle to find peace, order and good government after things went awry in the 1980s and '90s. A real victory would be to have all this settled so quietly that it never even makes it to the front page.

Ralph Surette is a freelance journalist in Yarmouth County. This column was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: Taber Andrew Bain/flickr

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