04/30/2015 10:53 EDT | Updated 08/08/2015 08:59 EDT

Nova Scotia government proposes changes to university law, but union ire remains

HALIFAX - Legislation aimed at making Nova Scotia's 10 universities more financially accountable drew fire Thursday from unions and student groups who say it should be withdrawn and rewritten because it restricts labour rights.

The bill tabled last week would suspend the right for unionized workers to go on strike at universities that are in financial trouble while in collective bargaining.

The legislation would instead allow schools to extend negotiations and ask for a 12- to 18-month process that would see an advisory committee help devise a restructuring plan.

Amendments proposed Thursday by the Liberal government wouldn't change those measures but would remove a provision restricting grievance procedures for universities that are restructuring.

Ray Larkin, a lawyer for the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, told the law amendments committee that replacing collective bargaining with a consultation process was a "dramatic change" that would benefit management.

"We get to speak but we don't have to be heard," said Larkin. "This change is unnecessary, it's unlikely to be effective and it's unfair to employees."

He said any problems that arise from a potential financial restructuring of a university would simply be "bottled up" because they can't be negotiated.

Larkin recommended eliminating the section of the bill that restricting strikes and lockouts.

David Etherington of the Canadian Federation of Students called for the withdrawal of the bill because of a lack of student consultation and the "problematic attack on workers' rights."

Etherington said collective bargaining had played a determinant role in upholding basic standards of quality and freedom at universities.

"Once removed, students will have no guarantees about the integrity and quality of the education they receive," he said.

Marc Lamoureux of the Saint Mary's University Faculty Union told the committee while legislation is needed to help schools in financial trouble, the current bill is excessive.

"Parts of the bill are not only bad policy but are likely contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedom," said Lamoureux.

But Labour and Advanced Education Minister Kelly Regan said the government is confident the legislation is on solid legal ground.

Regan said the threat of a strike or lockout needs to be removed in order to ensure an institution in the midst of a restructuring can survive.

"This piece of the legislation is meant to give the university community a safe place to do that restructuring," she said.