A statement by Equity Watch
KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – We are in the midst of a pandemic and must rely on the political leaders and the scientists and professionals who advise them in order to minimize damage to our population. But that consent must have limits. Otherwise more vulnerable groups of people, and indeed our democracy, will be at risk.
From the moment the Stephen McNeil government came to power in 2013, it has shown a deep animus against trade unions in particular and workers in general. It has also shown contempt for popular control and input from organizations below, as well as from opposition parties in the legislature. The COVID-19 crisis is arguably a great challenge for the government. But this obsession with punishing workers and their organizations and the disdain for democracy has now coloured and tainted its approach irrevocably.
It is crucial not to forget the government’s anti-labour and anti-democratic legacy, as it informs the present situation. Some examples:
- Nova Scotia continues with among the worst employment legislation in the country and the lowest average wage (save for PEI.) While the province overall became richer over the past decades, real median wages (that’s most of us) actually dropped. Part of this government’s vision seems to highlight Nova Scotia as a low-wage, low regulation labour ghetto.
- The government declared 40,000 workers (nearly 10% of the workforce) working in acute and long-term health care, group homes, 911 operators, ambulance services, home support, child protection and homes for seniors, youth-at-risk and the disabled, to be “essential”, making it almost impossible for them to go on strike, bargain collectively or otherwise resolve disputes effectively.
- It attempted to gerrymander acute health care bargaining units to change long-existing patterns of union representation to its liking. A veteran arbitrator determined the legislation to be unconstitutional.
- It attempted to give universities formidable powers to bypass union agreements, declare financial exigency and bar their workers from striking.
- When P-12 teachers thrice rebuffed the government’s attempt to cut their pay and benefits, government removed their right to strike and imposed an arrangement on them worse than its worst offer in bargaining. It ended the long-standing practice of consultation with teachers on education policy and removed key players from union coverage.
- To slash their salaries, it tore up a binding agreement with crown attorneys. That agreement, by sending disputes to arbitration, was designed to avoid labour turbulence. When crowns walked the picket line in protest, government returned to the bargaining table, but the ensuing deal still amounted to a real, albeit smaller, pay cut.
- Much of its legislation curtailing strikes, arbitration and collective bargaining contravenes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government has cynically banked on years of litigation before this is overturned by the courts, with the inevitable costs passed on to the future.
- Perhaps most germaine to our current battle with COVID-19, the government has seriously underfunded long-term care, structurally rendering seniors and other vulnerable and captive populations sitting ducks to contagions.
- The premier himself reneged on a campaign promise to give the Information and Privacy Commissioner order-making powers, enabling that office to force government departments to implement recommended changes, famously calling the promise a “mistake”.
- In a full frontal attack on our democratic institutions, the government removed health districts and elected school boards, destroying local control and centralizing decision-making to bureaucrats in its own ministries. “Consultative” bodies have been left to wither on the vine.
No other government in modern Nova Scotia history has a record like that. It seems clear that to this government workers, organizations and opposition politicians are to be seen but not heard.
This disdain has continued into the current COVID-19 crisis. Back in 2009, under a different government, provincial Auditor-General Jacques Lapointe reported that the province did not have enough medical supplies to deal with a possible outbreak of the H1N1 influenza virus. He also recommended that health-care unions sign a “good neighbour protocol” allowing governments to override collective agreements and union jurisdictions in a public health emergency. The unions signed that pledge back then, allowing the McNeil government now, during the current COVID-19 crisis, to move acute care workers to long-term care, without having to convene the house to pass new legislation. No thank you to the unions has been heard from the government.
When those same unions on March 13, 2020 issued a joint statement (nine days before the province’s state of emergency) calling on government to ensure adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), they were ignored.
Those unions have demanded greater investment in long term care for years, with the Nova Scotia Nurses Union issuing its “Broken Homes” report in late 2015. CUPE Nova Scotia more recently launched a “More Caring Hands” report calling for increases in staffing ratios. No formal response from government was forthcoming.
Pay is so low for long-term care workers that many of them have cobbled together a living by working at more than one institution. This obviously increases the danger to residents and other staff. Faced with COVID outbreaks at nursing homes, British Columbia made itself the employer of record for all such homes as early as March 31 and ordered the practice stopped. But Nova Scotia did not adopt that policy for almost another month. This decision would prove to have deadly consequences.
The McNeil government also stubbornly resisted calls by unions and others for a “pandemic pay” increase for frontline workers which several other provinces had implemented. Only three weeks later, on May 7, after the feds had announced they would contribute $80.5 million, did the Nova Scotia government promise a one-time lump sum of $2000 effective this July.
In late April, the government redeployed a group of acute care workers to Northwood to sub for the loss of infected staff there. These workers complained to their union, the NSGEU, that conditions were deplorable. NSGEU claims it reported these concerns to the Premier, Minister of Health and the Chief Medical Officer on April 20. Two days later it issued a public statement. NSGEU President Jason MaLean said, “Premier McNeil needs to learn to work collaboratively with workers, and to hear and respect the concerns they are bringing forward. They are the trained professionals, and they know what is needed to protect both them and the clients.”
On May 7, the union and others called for a public inquiry into long term care before a second wave of COVID-19 hits the province.
To these proposals both McNeil and Chief Medical Officer Strang responded with rancour. None of the proponents had suggested an immediate inquiry. But the premier has resisted: “It would be highly inappropriate in any form, in my view, to have people focus on anything else but this virus so that we can eradicate it and get it out of our province and start rebuilding our economy.”
The premier also attempted to sow division among the unions, claiming that some were more agreeable than the NSGEU.
Strang, for his part, also denounced the union: “I really question, I’m very concerned about the way the NSGEU has taken their concerns publicly – they’re using frankly fear-mongering and hyperbole in the way that they’re describing this situation.”
It is unfortunate that Strang has apparently caught the contagion of union-blaming from the premier.
Further sowing division, the premier in early April also singled out African Nova Scotian communities for censure. Ignoring his own claim that confidentiality was of prime importance, he pointed to “groups” in North Preston, East Preston and Cherry Brook and their “willful not following the requirements to minimize social gatherings.” African Nova Scotian groups rightly condemned these comments as redolent of racism.
With 50 fatalities at our province’s largest long-term care facility, Nova Scotians have every right to ask for a public inquiry, like the one the province of Ontario launched after the SARS outbreak in 2003. That inquiry, led by Mr. Justice Archie Campbell, reached many valuable conclusions, including the following:
“More financial and professional resources are needed, otherwise all the legislative changes and programme reforms will prove to be nothing but empty promises. The test of the government’s commitment will come when the time arrives for the heavy expenditures required to bring our public health protection up to a reasonable standard.”
The government has so far refused to agree to such an inquiry. And it refuses to allow legislative committees to convene, even on pressing issues unrelated to COVID-19. McNeil is betting that Nova Scotians don’t care: “To be perfectly honest with you, that is not in the forefront of most Nova Scotians’ minds.”
Civil rights commentators like Law professor Wayne McKay have labelled this an “authoritarian, sometime bullying style of management,” and complain about a centralization of power.
At the very least, the McNeil government has catastrophically compromised its credibility on issues of labour and employment and in these fraught times we demand accountability.
Equity Watch is a diverse group of concerned citizens, campaigning to make Nova Scotia governments and employers more accountable concerning workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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