Bad Timing

The provincial government has a chronic timing problem. In an effort to look busy and engaged, or just to run for political cover, it makes announcements and implements choices at a time different than required by events, or without adequate preparation. It often creates a mess.

  1. The most conspicuous example is the arrangement with Newfoundland and Labrador for power from Muskrat Falls. The province appears to have committed itself to that enormous deal without adequate consideration of either price or terms.
  2. On April 3rd, Education Minister Ramona Jennex asked the province’s school boards to halt school closures and suspend the review process. The surprise announcement came just days after the deadline for school boards to decide which schools will close and which ones will be placed under review during the coming year. The school boards had been about to announce closures needed to balance by their budgets. The Minister suggested that those closures could be somehow avoided but did not provide the necessary funding. A study paper on a new process is due in the fall. In the meantime, school boards have inadequate funds and no policy framework for the next round of school evaluations.
  3. On April 9th, the province announced a program to provide insulin pumps to youths under 19. Premier Dexter said the program would be based on need, and children with insurance would still have to apply for coverage with their insurance providers before approaching the government for help. Perhaps it did not occur to the Premier that people will stop buying insurance for things that the province will otherwise cover. This may be a good program, but costs could easily exceed estimates.
  4. Justice Minister Ross Landry was widely criticized for his initial response to the Rehtaeh Parsons case. On April 12th, bypassing the supposedly independent Director of Public Prosecutions, he ordered a review of the decision not to lay charges in respect to an alleged sexual assault of Rehtaeh by four boys and the electronic distribution of a photograph. More than two months later no one has been appointed to conduct the review.
  5. The most recent example is the negotiations with the paramedics. The government’s contract is with the employer, Emergency Medical Care Inc.  The employer’s efforts to negotiate an arrangement were completely subverted by the government dealing directly with the union, behind the employer’s back.

Furthermore, the impartiality of the province’s appointed mediator has been compromised. Neither he nor the Labour Department is willing to reveal who it was that talked to him on behalf of the province.

It appears that the government made an early commitment to the union to provide a defined benefit pension plan. The province thus gave up any bargaining leverage that should have come with such an attractive benefit.

The tentative contract received ringing endorsements from their executive and several other prominent labour leaders. For example, the union’s International Representative said, “I can tell you we have thousands of public sector members who would be extremely pleased with this package. This in my view is a tremendous achievement in today’s economy.” Nevertheless, the membership turned down the tentative agreement. They sensed that the province could be pushed further.

The province should not be negotiating with a union representing a private company’s employees. If it was willing to fund a defined benefit plan, it should have signalled that to the employer and left it to them to decide when to present it.

As it is, the paramedics have pocketed the pension promise and are marching for more. Not surprisingly, they are marching on the legislature, not their employer.

The province has lost its grip on this situation and risks setting a terrible precedent for future negotiations with health care workers and others. The union executive is clearly unable to get its members to approve the agreements it recommends. It is time for a restart.

The province should recall the legislature to add paramedics to police and firefighters as groups prohibited from striking by the Trade Union Act. This should not have been necessary, but is now needed to bring some rationality back to the bargaining table.

Secondly, the province should absent itself entirely from the bargaining process, dealing only with the employer to indicate what terms it is willing to support. If the employer and the union are not able to agree, then binding arbitration should be imposed. The arbitrator’s starting point should be the present contract; that was where things began before the government’s unhelpful meddling.


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