POLITICS
10/21/2011 02:22 EDT | Updated 12/21/2011 05:12 EST

Nova Scotia ponders ways to settle first contracts in workplaces

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government is seeking public input as it examines ways of settling initial contracts for workers in unionized workplaces.

The Labour Department posted a discussion paper on its website Friday asking for feedback by Nov. 4.

The paper was written by the government-appointed labour management review committee, a joint union and private sector body set up to advise the province on labour-related issues.

Labour Department spokesman Tom Peck said it was too early to say whether the government would introduce new legislation or simply propose amendments to the current act.

He said the issue was being examined on the recommendation of the labour review committee.

"I think it's because they want to avoid any kind of lengthy strike over a first collective agreement," said Peck, although he added he wasn't aware of a recent example where that's happened.

The committee says first contracts can often be difficult to achieve and it's looking at ways of avoiding costly strikes or lockouts.

The paper says that under the province's Trade Union Act, unions and employers are charged with making "every reasonable effort" to conclude a collective agreement.

Employees can apply to have their union de-certified as the bargaining agent, or can have another union seek to bargain on their behalf if a contract is not reached within a year of the original union certification.

The paper says of the 24 union certifications granted in 2010-2011, four applied for de-certification.

Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie didn't see a problem with the current rules.

"We have successfully in this province concluded thousands of contracts," said Baillie. "There already is a mechanism when you feel that you are being bargained with unfairly."

Either party can also ask the minister to appoint a conciliation officer to help them come to an agreement, a process the committee paper says works well.

"The department receives approximately 100 requests per year and has a success rate over the last five years of over 95 per cent," the paper stated.

The Labour Board also has the power to order parties to return to bargaining under certain conditions, but the paper said its tools are limited and remedial action is "generally not taken."

There are also timelines that must be met before a union can strike or an employer can lock out its workers.

The paper says that although features vary in the six provinces where there is legislation, the laws commonly allow a labour relations board or the minister the discretion to impose an agreement or call for other forms of settlement including mediation-conciliation or arbitration.

Baillie accused the NDP government of bowing to a "big labour agenda."

That same criticism was levelled by the opposition during a contentious debate in the legislature last fall over legislation that reformed the province's labour board and created the labour management review committee.