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War on Workers continues in Nova Scotia

December 7, 2011

2-minute read

The holy commotion orchestrated by Nova Scotia employers over Bill 102 on First Collective Agreement Arbitration is not really about this very modest piece of legislation.

At best, it will affect few employers. As the premier has said, most Canadian provinces have such legislation and it is seldom used.

So why are the Sobeys and the Michelins and the Clearwaters and the troops of their lawyers and consultants making such a fuss?

It’s all about the legislation the government could have introduced, but didn’t. And won’t.

And it’s about continuing the war on workers that began in Nova Scotia as far back as 1979.

That’s when the then government, in what can only be called an act of corruption, introduced the original “Michelin Bill,” deliberately and retroactively blocking a union organizing drive at that employer and making it harder to organize multi-plant employers in the future. In 1984, Nova Scotia was first in Canada to eliminate “card count” evidence to determine union support, again hobbling the unions.

The success of this war on Nova Scotia workers is evidenced by how they fared during a period of relative prosperity. From 1991 to 2006, the province grew 35% richer in real GDP per capita and real productivity rose 22%. But average real earnings dropped. A 2008 study by economist Mathieu Dufour and me showed the proportion of wealth going to workers dropped in that period while the proportion going to owners of capital rose.

If this is what the “good times” offered, what would happen after the financial troubles of the past few years? Not only has the purchasing power of the average paycheque dropped even more, in the past year weekly earnings fell even in absolute terms!

Have unionized workers done better? The evidence I’ve examined shows they too have barely kept pace with inflation.

That’s the situation that Nova Scotia employers want to continue. It’s not different from what employers all over the world have been doing. It’s just more dramatic. And short-sighted. As long as Nova Scotia remains a low-wage ghetto (with the second lowest weekly earnings in the country, next to PEI) there is little incentive for employers to invest in productivity improvements like technology and worker training and education. That will only make our economic situation worse.

When the NDP was elected in 2009, the labour movement’s wish list was extremely modest. Anxious not to embarrass the government and perhaps call forth an employer counter-offensive, labour’s demands were few. And yet even the paltry reforms introduced have summoned just such an employer onslaught. The opponents huffed and puffed when the government introduced essentially cosmetic changes in Bill 101 a year ago. And they’re threatening to blow the house down over first contract arbitration.

The conflicting arguments proffered by Bill 102’s opponents show just how weak their case is. They say legislation that applies to so few situations is unnecessary. But they prophesy disaster if the legislation is introduced. They can’t have it both ways and they know it. But the purpose is not to make sense. The purpose is to make noise. To make sure that nothing more ambitious comes forward from this government.

A government serious about addressing workers’ declining fortunes would take initiative in a broad sweep of legislation from collective bargaining to labour standards, occupational health and safety and even human rights. It could and should remove the very real barriers confronting unions in responding to worker calls to organize the knowledge economy and the service economy. And it should toughen up the standards for fair treatment of employees, among the worst in the country.

Larry Haiven is a professor in the Department of Management, Saint Mary’s University and a research associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Nova Scotia.

An edited version of this post was published in the Chronicle Herald, December 6, 2011.

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