NAPE president Jerry Earle says he is optimistic the union and the provincial government can reach agreements on 16 sets of public-sector collective agreements — now being negotiated — by the end of this year or early in 2018.
That optimism started to develop after the departure of Cathy Bennett as Finance minister during the summer, he said, bringing a change in the tone of the Liberal government at the bargaining table.
Bargaining had begun in fall 2016.
Earle told about 450 people attending the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE) biennial convention in St. John’s Friday that under Bennett, the government’s bargaining teams had a very firm position and were unwilling to negotiate fairly.
He said it became clear early on that the government was not committed to bargaining, and progress was very slow. The government had hired the law firm McInnes Cooper to support its bargaining team, and seemed in a rush to get to conciliation, and then in a similar rush to leave conciliation.
Earle said the Liberal government spent $250,000 as a result of billings from outside entities during the bargaining process under Bennett while jobs were being eliminated and services slashed.
“What we were finding previously, whether it was intentional or otherwise, it was a very entrenched position,” Earle told media after his convention speech.
“There was a rush to go into conciliation at the request of government. We were no more at the conciliation table when there was a rush to leave the conciliation table. We said right from Day 1 we didn’t think it was even necessary to go there.”
Earle said what frustrated the union even more was that Bennett often made comments to the media that undermined the bargaining process.
Since Tom Osborne has taken over as Finance minister, Earle said, things have improved substantially. He said the McInnes Cooper law firm has been removed from negotiations and both sides have been back at the bargaining table — apart from conciliation — and making progress on outstanding issues.
“We are making progress on local issues that we haven’t been able to make progress on for some time,” Earle said. “Our teams have noted a marked improvement in the bargaining process during these new sets of negotiations.
“We are actually sitting down having dialogue. We are talking about the issues, trying to work through them. I keep saying, no matter how tough an issue is, if you are not willing to talk about it it’s always going to be an issue.
“I’m pleased to stand here today and tell you, progress is being made. I’m truly hopeful that an agreement that is agreeable to the membership can be reached, hopefully, by the end of this year, if not, early into the new year. We have a long ways to go, but we are much further now than we were only a couple months ago.”
The public-sector bargaining units include: hospital support staff, faculty, health professionals, maintenance and operational services (MOS), general service, marine services, ushers, NLC, air services, Workplace NL, school boards, lab and X-ray, student assistants, CNA support and group homes.
Earle’s speech at the convention was one of a fighting leader. He said NAPE will not back down when members are attacked either by government, right-wing think-tanks or employers who try to set back progress the union has made over the years.
“My message is clear. If you attack hard-working NAPE members, if you disrespect our members, if you attack workers in general, if you take actions that negatively impact our communities, we will fight back,” Earle said. “NAPE will continue to speak out for our members and for the services we provide.”
He pointed to several public campaigns NAPE has launched in the last couple of years, including a push back to the Liberal government’s 2016 budget that saw the creation of a deficit-reduction levy and cuts to a number of services.
“None of us can forget Budget 2016,” Earle said. “Regressive levies, unfairly targeting our province’s less fortunate and elderly. Cutting jobs and services, removing financial assistance for students, increasing class sizes, eliminating 24-hour snowclearing and closing libraries.
“Given the impact of the 2016 budget on public services and the local economy, NAPE had no choice but to forcefully push back in the streets, in the media and on the public relations and advertising front. Our campaign focused on promises broken, and took action to hold this government accountable for this betrayal.”
He noted that since the last NAPE convention two years ago, 52 collective agreements have been reached without work disruption. And a tentative agreement on Number 53 was reached on Thursday — with Country Ribbon.
That tentative agreement includes increases in wages as well as improvements in contract language.
A ratification meeting is being scheduled.
The NAPE convention continues today.