Tom Os­borne takes over poi­soned union ne­go­ti­a­tions

New fi­nance min­is­ter says he’ll get up to speed quickly on this file

The Aurora (Labrador City) - - EDITORIAL - BY JAMES MCLEOD

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.”

FILE PHOTO

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