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Nova Scotia health minister wants to negotiate longer collective agreements

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HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government wants to negotiate a long-term collective agreement with its health-care workers in the next round of bargaining this fall, but their union president says three-year contracts have worked well for decades.

Health Minister Leo Glavine said Thursday the department is in a constant state of negotiation with unions and reaching a long-term contract would save money on bargaining costs.

"I took a look at some of our contracts historically and we have signed off on contracts that had already expired. There's something wrong with that," Glavine said after a cabinet meeting.

He alluded to a five-year deal for health care workers in British Columbia that includes a wage increase of about one per cent a year with a provision of further increases if the economy improves over projections.

"They're basically saying wage increases will be in accordance with the economic performance of the province," said Glavine. "We have to make wage settlements on that kind of thinking."

He said he likes the idea of a five-year deal but wouldn't comment on potential wage increases for the local union at the Capital District Health Authority in the Halifax area. Its three-year contract expires Oct. 31.

Joan Jessome, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said the three-year contracts have worked because they allow for adjustments to issues like hours, scheduling and safety concerns as they evolve or become outdated over the course of an agreement.

"Five years is a long time," Jessome said in an interview. "But at the end of the day, the employers can propose whatever they want to propose."

Jessome also disagreed with Glavine that a longer contract would cut bargaining costs.

"If there was a real strong interest from any employer at any table to cut the cost of bargaining, then the first thing they need to do is come to the table prepared to bargain," said Jessome.

"The cost can be greatly reduced if both parities are prepared to bargain on the days that are scheduled."

Finance Minister Diana Whalen said the previous NDP government's contract with the union, which gave workers a 7.5 wage increase over three years, was expensive.

"We have a very deep deficit... so wage settlements are going to be an important part of where we go in the future," said Whalen.

Whalen's comments come a day after a new book was released by a former NDP finance minister.

In his book, "What I Learned About Politics: Inside the Rise — and Collapse — of Nova Scotia’s NDP Government," Graham Steele says he believed the province couldn't afford the contract, which prompted him to draft a resignation announcement that was never sent.

The announcement is included in the book, unchanged from the day he wrote it in April 2012: "To put it simply, I am not sure that the settlement is financially sustainable, no matter the outcome of arbitration. And in the long run, this settlement will likely contribute to the weakening of important public services, including health care."

Steele ultimately resigned from cabinet about a month later, but didn't air his grievances at the time with premier Darrell Dexter over the health-care settlement.

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