12/06/2013 08:30 EST | Updated 02/05/2014 05:59 EST

Nova Scotia government to change contentious labour bill on first contracts

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government is moving to amend a contentious piece of legislation aimed at settling first contracts in newly unionized workplaces after concern from businesses, the province's labour minister said Friday.

Kelly Regan said first contract arbitration as it currently stands involves the province's Labour Board too quickly in the negotiating process. She said proposed changes would restore balance between businesses and the unions.

"The legislation will remove the time limits on conciliation and eliminate automatic access to first contract arbitration, giving employers more time to try to negotiate affordable agreements with their employees," Regan told a news conference.

Under legislation introduced by the former NDP government, unsettled contracts could go to conciliation after 120 days and go to arbitration after a year.

Regan said the changes would remove the time limits and require the parties in a negotiation to demonstrate bad faith in talks before the process could move to arbitration.

She said a conciliator would have to determine that talks had reached an impasse before the matter could be sent to the Labour Board.

The original bill was passed by the NDP in December 2011 following weeks of procedural wrangling by the opposition parties. At the time, both the Liberals and the Tories maintained the bill wasn't needed and would stifle the province's economic competitiveness.

Neither a department official nor Regan could provide examples of businesses leaving the province as a result of the legislation or of any arbitrated settlement. They said there was also no evidence of a major spike in unions trying to organize workplaces.

Regan said it boiled down to a political difference with the previous government over what's actually needed.

"I realize the NDP will be upset that we are changing their bill and the Conservatives will be upset that we didn't get rid of it altogether," said Regan. "We feel comfortable being in the middle."

Rick Clarke, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, said he's not sure why the changes are needed given that the current process has only been used in one instance.

"As an organization we clearly have some concern, because it's not that it's been an abused process," said Clarke. "It's just that some people have been against it and they lobbied hard for (changes)."

Clarke said he thinks removing the time limits will take away incentives for the sides to bargain in good faith.

However, he added that unions might be able to live with the new legislation depending on what comes out of law amendments.

"If there is a better process in place to deal with bad faith bargaining then I may have a little more of a comfort zone," he said.

Luc Erjavec of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association had been among a group of vocal opponents of the original law.

He welcomed the government's changes.

"Businesses were really galvanized in their opposition against this and government responded," he said.