Premier Sabotages Labour Inquiry

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The man appointed to inquire into the state of industrial relations in Nova Scotia's health- care system went into the weekend with no terms of reference, no timetable, and a united front of unions still vowing to boycott his inquiry.

Milton Veniot, one of the province's most experienced industrial relations arbitrators, was a good choice for the job. He has settled half a dozen strikes in the last year alone. You can't achieve a record like that unless both sides regard you as reasonable, honest and fair-minded.

The unions' angry response to his appointment, and their subsequent refusal to participate in the inquiry, resulted not from any lack of professional regard for Veniot but from a series of missteps and provocations by government.

The promise of an inquiry formed part of the deal that broke the impasse over Bill 68, the government's failed attempt to dictate wages and working conditions to health workers. Signed by both sides, the agreement suspended Bill 68, sent the dispute to either-or arbitration and promised an independent look at industrial relations in health care.

Though the deal resolved a dangerous impasse, it did little to ease the rancour and mistrust Bill 68 left in its wake. If ever there was a time for prudence and caution in government utterances, this was it.

Instead, Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm and his government embarked on a series of decisions and announcements that seem almost calculated to send the inquiry off the rails.

  • On August 15, without consulting the unions, Labour Minister David Morse appointed Veniot. Unions insist they had been promised consultations on the appointment.
  • The government chose to go with a one-man commission, rather than a triumvirate that would include a labour representative. In doing so, it rebuffed labour's pleas for representation on the commission.
  • On August 21, Deputy Labour Minister Kevin MacNamara told the unions the government wanted Veniot to report by October 1. Unions regarded this timetable as unacceptably cramped, further evidence of the government's intent to proceed with essential services legislation whatever the inquiry turned up.
  • Two days later, Hamm confirmed his intention to introduce essential services legislation this fall. Worse, he revealed that cabinet would spend its two-day retreat in Amherst discussing the legislation, which Hamm touted as a way to prevent future impasses over contracts with health care workers. He suggested the bill might extend to other public sector workers.

Never mind the rest of the union beefs. This last bombshell was enough to blow the inquiry out of the water all by itself.

On a matter of exquisite delicacy, the government promised an inquiry to air divergent views before an impartial commission. Then, before the inquiry could start its work, cabinet began deliberating on legislation to deal with the very same issue.

How in the name of heaven did the Premier expect unions to react? When they told him to stuff his inquiry, Hamm's predictable response was to insist it would go ahead, with or without worker participation.

Don't be too sure. Unless eleventh-hour efforts by MacNamara succeed in luring the unions back onside, Veniot would be unwise to proceed with an inquiry government has hopelessly compromised. For the deputy labour minister's entreaties to succeed, the government will have to back down, an exercise at odds with Hamm's stubbornness.

The Premier's certitude is unimpaired by his obvious ignorance of industrial relations. He brings to the dispute a small-town belief that strikes are bad, and if only government would ban them, the world would be a better place.

Most people would agree that strikes are bad, but the threat of strikes forms a crucial part of a highly evolved and nuanced system for preserving peace in the workplace. On it rests such fundamental liberties as freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and the right to consent to the terms and conditions under which one's labour is employed.

Mess with these rights, and you risk industrial chaos far worse than what results from the occasional dispute that can't be resolved without a strike. This is the lesson of Bill 68, a lesson apparently lost on the premier.

"I've had enough dealings with John Hamm to know he's not going to back down," Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union president Joan Jessome said in a telephone interview. "He's going to take away the right to strike in essential services. It's already pre-cooked."

Jessome paused.

"People died for those rights," she said. "I can't sit at that table."

Hamm's actions are so ill-conceived, you have to wonder if they weren't calculated to provoke a union boycott. Nurses defeated Bill 68 by constantly focusing on the public perception of their actions, making certain they did nothing that appeared selfish or reckless.

Hamm may believe that, by boycotting the inquiry, unions will appear recalcitrant and lose public support. He may be right. Nova Scotia public opinion doesn't automatically line up behind unions, and many voters' understanding of collective bargaining is no more sophisticated than cabinet's.

To win round two, unions will have carefully nurture public perceptions.

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