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POLITICS/analysis: Osborne takes over poisoned union negotiations

Tom Osborne.
Tom Osborne.

As he takes over as minister of Finance, Tom Osborne will be tasked with diffusing one of the most politically explosive issues facing the government: public-sector contract negotiations.

There was no indication Monday that Cathy Bennett’s resignation as finance minister had anything to do with collective bargaining, but for months there have been rumblings coming from within the government about how dysfunctional the contract talks have been.

Several sources have spoken with frustration to The Telegram about Bennett’s aggressive approach, and there was a widespread expectation that the whole situation would eventually end with the legislature unilaterally imposing a contract on unions — perhaps as soon as this fall.

Bennett hired lawyer Dennis Mahoney from McInnes Cooper as a consultant to help with negotiations at a cost of more than $266,000 and counting — and the legal advice was causing tension behind the scenes.

One source indicated Bennett would come to cabinet meetings pushing for a more aggressive approach, based on legal advice from McInnes Cooper that was “contradictory” to what the Department of Justice was providing.

From the beginning, the unions were expecting a rough round of contract negotiations, because the provincial government is struggling with a huge deficit and looking to cut costs.

Then Bennett pushed the contract talks into conciliation very early in negotiations, and held a news conference at which she publicly discussed some of the major areas where the government is seeking concessions from the unions — shift-premium, sick leave, group insurance and severance.

From that point in March, there was effectively no trust or goodwill between the unions and the government when it came to contract talks.

On Monday, Osborne said he plans to contact union leaders within the next 48 hours as he gets up to speed on the issues.

“I want to move forward and see these negotiations move forward. I intend to work in good faith with the unions,” he said.

“I know there’s some concerns with that. That is a file I’m anxious to look into.”

Privately, one source within the labour movement expressed hope Osborne would return the contract talks to normal.

The source said if push comes to shove, the unions would likely negotiate to accept a wage freeze for the next contract, but the real concern is with the government pushing for concessions in terms of benefits and other contract language.

Osborne said it’s too early to say whether he’ll continue to retain McInnes Cooper, as Bennett did.

Ball, for his part, didn’t offer any criticism of Bennett, but said he hopes Osborne can settle things to provide certainty for the government.

“Tom is a great relationship builder,” Ball said.

“We’ve always had a commitment to a meaningful and productive negotiations with our public-sector workers, and that’ll continue now through Minister Osborne.”

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