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Bill 148 — Disrupting the pomp and circumstance at Province House

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Today at noon, while inside the Nova Scotia government convened the Legislature for a new session, the streets outside Province House filled with around a thousand angry workers, loudly demanding that the Public Services Sustainability Act (Bill 148) be revoked.

The many demonstrators were loud enough to make things difficult to hear inside, we were told. The turnout was remarkable for a regular workday.

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Without any kind of consultation, let alone fair bargaining, Bill 148  imposes a four-year wage package on 75,000 public employees belonging to the NSGEU, CUPE, the Nova Scotia Nurses Union, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, Unifor, CUPW, SEIU, and others.

Also joining the rally and the speakers list were representatives of the Canadian Federation of Students, national union leaders Jerry Dias (Unifor) and Mark Hancock (CUPE), and Gary Burrill, the leader of the Nova Scotia NDP, the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, and the Halifax Dartmouth & District Labour Council.

As Larry Haiven argues in an article published in the Nova Scotia Advocate, the imposed wage package could result in a real wage cut of about 7% after accounting for inflation.

“In addition, the Act peremptorily removes a long service award scheme that the unions accepted many years ago in lieu of up-front wage increases. That approximately a further 2% pay cut for new employees,” writes Haiven.

As various speakers pointed out, many public employees don’t meet the mythological stereotype of the well-off civil servant. Many are juggling more than one precarious job, many are women, and many of those women are the sole providers for their families.

In short, plenty of reasons to be angry, and angry the demonstrators were. Angry and loud, reputedly at times proceedings inside the House were hard to hear because of the noise generated by the ralliers.

At this time unions are asking to be added to the partial review of Bill 148 by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal initiated by the Nova Scotia government. The NSGEU has launched its own appeal of the entire Bill 148, but it may be years before this appeal reaches the Court of Appeal stage.

Meanwhile, many speakers promised to keep Liberal MLAs on their heels, with rallies and other actions across Nova Scotia, and reminding the ralliers that the new Liberal majority is a much reduced one, and that many more Liberal MLAs are vulnerable in the next election.

One can’t help but note that with its display of anger, and with the threats made by the speakers, the rally was much like all the other Province House rallies that occurred ever since the Liberal government gained power in 2013, although this year’s rallying music, by the Dixy Dogs, was without a doubt the best so far.

Maybe it’s time to change things up a bit. As I argued before, unions united in their opposition to the Liberal government’s anti labour stance should consider action above and beyond the current strategy of legal appeals, lobbying and rallies at constituency offices of Liberal MLAs.

As is the custom when Province House reconvenes, the Navy did its thing, marching, making music, saluting the Lieutenant-Governor, and whatever other pomp and circumstance the occasion calls for.  

The first time around the crowd respectfully made room for the military. But when they came noisily around the corner a second time, while union leaders’ speeches were in progress, nobody moved.

The marching band members came to a halt, stood around for a while, looking rather sheepish, and then they turned around and quietly walked away.

Maybe that was a teachable moment.       

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