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Larry Haiven: Government’s offer to prosecutors amounts to wage cut

Photo by Judy Haiven

This op-ed was originally published in the Chronicle Herald. It is republished here with the author’s kind permission.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The recent Crown attorneys dispute is a conflict on several fronts. The battlefield is public opinion. It’s a war of words. 

American political analyst George Lakoff calls this activity “framing.” What’s important is not the truth per se, but how the story is told. Because that’s what moves people. 

The premier and the attorney general have been trying to frame the message to the public thus: 

  • The government’s monetary offer to the Crowns is reasonable.
  • The monetary proposals of the Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys’ Association are unreasonable. 
  • The Crowns are being greedy by putting their own interests above the public good.  
  • The government is being noble by putting the public good above all else. 

They are spreading key misconceptions, fed by the public’s (and the media’s) unfamiliarity with the process and economics of collective bargaining. To be sure, these matters can be complicated. But that’s no excuse. 

The first fallacy is that Crown attorneys are asking for a raise of 17 per cent.  

That sounds high, especially if it comes all at once. Consider, however, that it represents a compounding of raises over four years.  

But that’s not what the Crowns were asking for. 

When labour and management negotiate, both sides start far apart. The labour side begins high; the management side low. As bargaining proceeds, both sides move away from their initial positions to something in between.  

According to Rick Woodburn, chief negotiator for the prosecutors, his side had already lowered its initial 17 per cent proposal. And, had the government not shut negotiations down with Bill 203, the labour proposals would have declined even further. For Premier Stephen McNeil to deliberately confuse that point by citing the 17 per cent figure is purposeful treachery. For the media to dutifully report it without question is lazy. 

A second fallacy is that the government’s offer of seven per cent is reasonable. That depends on ignoring inflation. If I get a one per cent raise and inflation is running at two per cent, then I have effectively taken a wage cut of one per cent. 

Up to 2008, Nova Scotia Crown attorneys were still the worst paid (and the hardest worked) in the country. But playing catch-up amid austerity is very, very difficult.

In 2009, the Crown attorneys attempted to pull ahead. They and the government negotiated for several years. Rather than resorting to a strike, they submitted the dispute to an arbitration board, which in April 2014 awarded a retroactive four-year agreement finally raising Nova Scotia Crown attorneys up the salary league table among their counterparts in other provinces. 

But in a new round of negotiations in 2014, the Crowns faced a drastic austerity regime. They reluctantly agreed to the government wage “formula” of 0, 0, 1, 1.5 and 0.5 per cent over the period from 2014 to 2019. In return, the government agreed to submit the future 30 years of disputes to binding arbitration. With inflation running at about eight per cent over the four years, this austerity agreement was, in fact, a wage cut of five per cent, wiping out much of the gains made in the previous, corrective round. 

And thus we come to the current dilemma. Predicting inflation over the next four years is admittedly speculative. But let’s take Statista’s modest estimates of 2.03 per cent, two per cent, 2.15 per cent and 2.15 per cent in the years from 2020 to 2023. To avoid dropping even further, the Crowns would have to get a raise of 8.6 per cent over that period. The government’s proposal of seven per cent would, if accepted, result in Crowns dropping even further, so that they would be making even less real pay than they did in 2008, which could once again make them the lowest paid in the country. 

Given all of that, it is not hard to see why the Crowns are fighting back. Is it “greedy” to fight against a wage cut? Let’s put a different frame on that picture.

See also: Judy and Larry Haiven: Crown attorneys are fighting for all Nova Scotians 

Larry Haiven is professor emeritus at Saint Mary’s University, on the steering committee of Equity Watch and a research associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Nova Scotia.

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