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Nova Scotia Government Introduces Public Services Sustainability (2015) Act

By Brian G. Johnston, QC

On the same day that the Nova Scotia government announced its projected deficit had ballooned to $241 million, it also introduced Bill 148, the Public Services Sustainability (2015) Act (“Act”).

The stated purposes of the Act are to create a framework for public sector employee compensation plans by placing fiscal limits on increases to compensation, to authorize a portion of cost savings identified through collective bargaining, and to fund increases in compensation – all while encouraging meaningful collective bargaining processes.

In addition, the Act establishes a collective bargaining pattern for four-year public sector deals which impose wage increases at the following rates:

Year 1: 0%;
Year 2: 0%;
Year 3: 1%; and
Year 4: 2%.

This pattern mirrors the one that the Province had been hoping to set through tentative deals established with Nova Scotia’s teachers and the Province’s largest union, the NSGEU. Unfortunately, Nova Scotia’s 10,000 teachers rejected the tentative deal and the NSGEU refused to present it to their 7,600 civil service members.

Naturally, there is talk of constitutional challenges, but s. 28 of the Act says that neither an arbitrator nor the Nova Scotia Labour Board has jurisdiction to determine Bill 148’s constitutional validity. Notably, the Act addresses requirements found in the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Meredith v. Canada, 2015 SCC 2, which ruled that the federal government’s right to limit wage increases in the 2009 Expenditure Restraint Act passed constitutional muster and did not offend the s. 2(d) Charter right to associate. The wage increases in the Act are consistent with the increases the Nova Scotia government was able to negotiate with both teachers and the civil service and may, therefore, be reflective of “an outcome consistent with actual bargaining processes”.

Nonetheless, we know that there are ongoing court challenges to restraint legislation, including the federal government’s 2011 Restoring Mail Delivery for Canadians Act and the Ontario government’s Bill 115 – Putting Students First Act (even though it was repealed in 2013).

Assuming the majority Liberal government actually passes the Act, its enactment will be delayed, giving all 75,000 public sector employees the opportunity to negotiate. However, any such negotiations will need to be within the boundaries established through the legislated framework. Undoubtedly, collective bargaining – in some manner or another – will continue in Nova Scotia, but court challenges may yet be commenced. Stay tuned! Life is interesting when the cupboard is bare.

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