Fate of Nova Scotia wage legislation unclear: lawyer

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WATCH ABOVE: The McNeil Liberals longstanding and ever-evolving dispute with labour groups is not going anywhere fast. Yesterday’s decision to proclaim wage legislation pushes the government and unions into a new normal and a new place to meet – at court. Legislative reporter Marieke Walsh looks at where things go from here.

The provincial government’s confidence in its wage legislation might be premature, according to a Halifax labour lawyer.

On Tuesday, the Liberals proclaimed Bill 148 which among other things puts a cap on wage increases for 75,000 public sector workers and freezes the long service award retroactive to April 1, 2015.

Since the bill was passed in December 2015, Premier Stephen McNeil and his cabinet have maintained the bill is in line with the constitution.

“The constitution says that everyone is entitled to open and fair collective bargaining, we believe we’ve gone through that process,” McNeil said. “It doesn’t say that everyone has to agree with what happens at the table, it says that you have to have the process of doing so.”

READ MORE: Decision to impose wage package on N.S. public workers ‘actions of a snake’: union

With several unions threatening legal action and with a separate charter challenge underway from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, the government has asked the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal to give its perspective on the constitutionality of the bill.

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Labour Relations Minister Mark Furey echoed McNeil’s position on Tuesday saying “we have confidence in the legislation.”

But labour lawyer Ron Stockton said Wednesday, the Court of Appeal’s review of Bill 148 won’t be a slam dunk for either the government defending it or a union or labour group that intervenes.

“It’s very difficult to say,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “The Supreme Court has given us some good guidelines but it hasn’t definitively answered the question of whether Bill 148 will pass muster.”

READ MORE: Supreme Court ruling bolsters Nova Scotia teachers in contract dispute: union

Whether the government negotiated in good faith after tabling and passing Bill 148 almost two years ago isn’t clear he said. Adding that another question the court will have to grapple with is whether setting a wage pattern and freezing the long service award is an infringement on the right to collectively bargain.

“I think that’s really up in the air,” Stockton said.

NSGEU president Jason MacLean told reporters on Tuesday his union will wait to hear the Court of Appeal’s view on the act before deciding whether to launch a charter challenge.

The last time the government asked the Court of Appeal for a reference was around the electoral boundaries dispute — that question took more than two years to work its way through the courts. A government spokesperson said arbitration and negotiations for the more than 90 per cent of outstanding public sector contracts will continue.