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Strike city

A wave of labour strike is washing over Halifax, as public agencies attempt to roll back existing pay and benefits. Tim Bousquet reports

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Get your Strike On!
  • Get your Strike On!

Labour problems have come to Halifax in a major way. Some of the management-union fights involve private companies like the Chronicle-Herald and Oland Brewery (see sidebar), but the bulk of current or impending conflicts reflect public agencies attempting to roll back existing pay or benefits for public employee unions.

The provincial government, for example, has been attempting to hold increases to health care workers' wages to one percent annually, even though inflation this year is about three percent---that is, real wages would be reduced by about two percent. In November, an arbitrator awarded provincially employed RNs a 7.1 percent pay increase over three years---about what we can expect inflation to look like if the economy remains somewhat languid. Other health care workers are now citing that settlement as a template for their own contracts, most of which are coming up in the next few months; anything else, they say, would amount to a decrease in buying power.

Metro Transit

The bus strike is now entering its sixth week, the longest bus strike in Halifax history. Metro Transit management cites ballooning overtime costs last year as reason why it wants to change the scheduling system, but management has not responded to a Coast request for a breakdown in those costs related to last year's Canada Games and other overtime cost causes listed in a December financial report.

It's difficult to get full information related to the scheduling issues, and perhaps impossible to reach an understanding of it that everyone would agree to. Management says the so-called "cafeteria-style" pick is a paperwork nightmare, and mayor Peter Kelly says it takes weeks to compile and process drivers' requests as managers hunt down drivers with pen and paper to make it work. But many other transit systems across North America routinely use that system and Giro, the company that manufactures the computer system Metro Transit uses, brags on its website that the software can be used for cafeteria-style scheduling---that is, without the paper and pencil nightmare.

Regardless, no matter which version of scheduling one prefers, the city's proposed changes---to a "rostering system" that assigns unchangeable weekly schedules---is a rollback of an existing benefit enjoyed by drivers.

Drivers maintain they have bypassed pay raises through the years in order to keep the modicum of control they have over scheduling. Drivers now make $24/hour, no matter how long they've been with Metro Transit, while drivers in comparably sized cities that have moved over to the rostering type of scheduling get paid $30/hour. Halifax drivers would prefer to keep the existing scheduling, but say if they give it up, they should get paid the higher rate as compensation.

The city gave the union a deadline of last Friday to accept its demands, a date that came and went. Apparently the "deadline" didn't really mean anything, as council Tuesday voted to keep at negotiations. So there's movement, but not much. It's likely the strike will continue at least another week, possibly longer.

Dalhousie University

The Dalhousie Faculty Union expects to be on strike Monday. The heart of this dispute is an attempt by the university to get out from under a projected $50 million needed annually to keep the pension plan in accordance with provincial law.

The issue is complicated, but the university wants to offload the pension plan completely, and make it a jointly managed plan with the union. The union agreed to this, with the provision that the university be responsible for any shortfalls that result from when the university was solely managing the plan. The university refuses to accept that proposal.

The background to the pension issue is that provincial law anticipated an ever-growing stock market, and so required a "contribution holiday" when the plan was fully funded in the late 1990s. Of course, in the real world there are economic downturns like the financial collapse of 2008, which cut the fund short. In effect, the province wants to deal with that shortfall by rolling back benefits promised before the collapse.

State of the world

But in these difficult economic times, doesn't it make sense to spread the pain around, to have some level of austerity? Not so, says SMU management prof Larry Haiven, who with his wife and colleague, Judy Haiven, and Kyle Buott, a union activist, released a report last week for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives entitled "Labour Standards Reform in Nova Scotia: Reversing the War Against Workers."

That report documents that since 1991, worker productivity in Nova Scotia has increased 17.2 percent, while average worker pay has decreased about half a percent. Nova Scotian workers now make on average about $660/week, but if the increase in productivity was factored into their paycheques, it would be more like $820/week. At the same time, since 1982, the provincial GDP per capita has increased over 60 percent.

So if workers haven't benefited from the increase in productivity and the wealth of Nova Scotia, who did? "Owners, and the wealthy," says Larry Haiven, plainly.

The report also shows that, contrary to myth, unionized employees in Nova Scotia haven't benefitted any more so than non-unionized employees.

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