Unions gird for battle after N.S. NDP wins labour peace following brief strike

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HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's NDP government dodged a bullet on the labour front Monday, reaching a tentative contract agreement with 4,000 rural hospital workers only two hours into a strike that threatened to hobble the health-care sector.
The deal - one of two key public sector contracts reached since the weekend with the Canadian Union of Public Employees - demonstrates a change in the government's approach to collective bargaining, said Rick Clarke, president of the 70,000-member Nova Scotia Federation of Labour.
"With other governments, when we were in a situation like this, the pattern was pretty clear: they opted to roll back wages, freeze workers' wages or impose a (settlement)," Clarke said in an interview.
"This time, they sent the parties back to the table. ... They said that they supported collective bargaining, and they lived up to that."
Still, Clarke said the talks were no love-in, and Premier Darrell Dexter faces a huge challenge in the weeks ahead with more than 200 public sector contracts up for renewal by the spring.
A day before the early morning deal was struck with the hospital workers, the government reached a tentative agreement with 3,000 rural school support workers whose strike deadline was also Monday.
Details of the agreements were not released, but the union has recommended acceptance of both deals.
The union had sought a three-year deal, with annual raises of 2.9 per cent, but the province's last-known offer was a four-year deal, with 2.9 per cent raises in the first two years and one per cent a year in the last two.
The union's top priority was maintaining wage parity with workers in the Halifax district, which meant a 2.9 per cent increase starting in April 2009, said CUPE Nova Scotia president Danny Cavanaugh. He declined to offer further details.
Wayne Thomas, the union's acute-care co-ordinator, said the union reached its goal.
"We are giving a signal that we're happy with the result as far as wage parity is concerned," he said in an interview.
At first glance, it would appear the NDP has taken a big step toward establishing labour peace in the province, mainly because the two contracts will now be used by the government as a pattern for future talks.
"It's difficult to move government from that pattern," said Thomas "But every one of our locals is autonomous, every one of our locals has the right to strike. In the end, they will determine whether or not they can live with the pattern."
Deputy premier Frank Corbett said the pattern is important because it reflects the fact that the government is in sad financial shape, struggling to cope with a massive $590 million deficit.
He said the tentative deals "bring the reality of the finances of this province into perspective."
"So we're happy with setting that pattern and moving forward. ... (But) I don't think you ever want to assume that the road ahead is any easier."
Joan Jessom, president of the 27,000-member Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said she is girding for battle.
She said she was particularly disturbed by the government's decision to offer wage increases worth one per cent.
"The pattern will certainly be a problem," she said. "But there's more to the bargaining table than the pattern."
About 70 collective agreements covering 25,000 workers represented by the government and general employees union are up for bargaining this year.
Under the previous Conservative government, which was in power in Nova Scotia for 10 years, the province experienced a bitter 77-day strike by group home workers. Jessom also recalled the Tory government's failed 2001 bid to strip almost 10,000 health-care workers of their right to strike.
By contrast, the NDP has decided to start contract talks for its civil servants in February, even though their contracts don't expire until the end of March - a first for the province.
However, Jessom insisted her union has not cozied up to the NDP.
"Bargaining is its own beast," she said. "The people I represent, they're demands have not changed because there is a different government in place."
Peter Mombourquette, chairman of the business administration department at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, said union members should be concerned about the close relationship between the NDP and union leaders.
"It's a lot more difficult to vilify the NDP when you have a long history of financially supporting them," he said.

Organizations: NDP, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Nova Scotia Federation of Labour General Employees Union Mount St. Vincent University

Geographic location: HALIFAX, Nova Scotia

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