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Nova Scotia Month in Review

Unions Put on Their Gloves, The Poor are Incovenient Truths, Students Ready for Action

by Ken Clare

Transit Workers Support Demo - Sunday, January 29th. Photo: Ken Clare
Transit Workers Support Demo - Sunday, January 29th. Photo: Ken Clare

Union days: Emerging stronger from the current crisis?

As January ended, more than 700 Metro Transit workers, members of Local 508 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, were locked in the final days of contract negotiations.

If an agreement isn’t reached by Thursday, February 2, a strike or lockout looms.

According to ATU local President Ken Wilson, Metro Transit came to the bargaining table with a 200-item list of union concessions—conditions and protections in the current contract that the company wants to see eradicated.

Wilson says that these concessions would break the union. Some cornerstone services, such as Access-a-Bus and vehicle maintenance, could be contracting out, and for the first time, buses operated by part-time drivers.

Metro Transit’s stand is consistent with other high-profile contract negotiations. Workers at Liverpool’s Bowater pulp mill, for example, were forced late last year to eviscerate their contract—agreeing to layoffs, losing seniority rights, and acceding to other concessions, to keep their jobs.

Across Nova Scotia, corporate negotiators are taking advantage of what they see as a perfect storm of pro-business conditions: high unemployment has stifled labour mobility, union membership is dropping, media outlets are campaigning against contracted pension plans. Set within a framework of a rightward resurgence, symbolized by last May’s Federal election, company negotiating positions seem poised to go for the throat of a weakened labour movement.

Many union activists look at these conditions and see opportunities as well as challenges. Symbolic of the emerging militancy is an amalgamation proposal under discussion between the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions. The two unions’ discussion paper, circulated to members at the end of January, is optimistic and refreshingly militant.

“Global capitalism is proving itself incapable of righting itself”, the document reads. “And we are likely at the beginning of a long period of economic turmoil and stagnation. Public concern with inequality, and the excesses and irresponsibility of the rich and corporate leaders…is growing. If unions can position themselves as a legitimate voice of this discontent, and channel Canadians’ anger and worry in progressive and effective directions, we could emerge from the current crisis stronger and more confident…”

Words to organize by?


HRM to Gottingen community: ‘See Ya’

HRM Council has torn through the rights of the central Halifax Gottingen Street-area community, on the way to again handing the St. Patrick’s-Alexandra School site to the developers of a large condo scheme.

In the middle of December, HRM announced the sale of the site, over a bid from three established community organizations—the Micmac Native Friendship Centre, the Richard Preston Centre for Excellence, and the North End Community Clinic—who proposed using turning the closed school into a revitalized site of badly-needed community services.

Opponents of this decision soon unearthed an ugly truth. Staff and Council admitted that they had ignored a 20-year HRM policy that gives first consideration for unused school sites to community-purposed proposals.

Council’s original decision was stayed for a short time in January, while it briefly considered adhering to its own policy.

Community satisfaction at the delay was short-lived. On January 23, Council reaffirmed its original decision, and scheduled a subsequent meeting to discard the inconvenient policy it had ignored.

A glace northward across the horizon from Citadel Hill offers a clear perspective on the process. Looking straight over the roof of the St. Pat’s Alexandra, we see HMC Halifax, home of Canada’s resurgent navy. Beyond, three cranes tower over the revitalized Halifax Shipyards. Populating these new economic drivers, not to mention a buoyant new commercial downtown, will require infilling the communities of Halifax peninsula North—putting upscale housing on smaller industrial and commercial spaces, unused church sites, and a variety of public spaces.

The marginalized among us—poorer working class families, and Black and Native communities? In days gone by, discarded to the old downtown.

Now you’re inconvenient? Discarded from the new downtown.

See ya. Sure wouldn’t want to be ya.


University Debt 101 : How private debt replaces public expenditure

A three-year Memorandum of Agreement, between the Province of Nova Scotia and its Universities, will see a 3% reduction in government funding next year.

Coming on the heels of last year’s 4% cut, and freeing Universities to increase fees by 3%, the new MOU will damage our postsecondary education system, and compromise students’ right to attend complete their education, according to student leaders, and faculty and staff unions.

The most immediate effect of these cuts in university funding is on the lives of students, many of whom will decide not to attend schools they cannot afford, or will spend more than a decade after graduation awash in personal debt.

This step is a sad reflection on the provincial government’s outdated obsession with debt. At a time when governments are awakening to the realization that the austerity programmes of the past three decades have done more harm than good (and that education is one of the most effective economic inputs), Nova Scotia remains an outlier. Our students and our whole economy are paying the price.

At month’s end, students and their supporters were preparing for the National Student Day of Action on February 1—regrettably, now, an annual highlight on your academic calendar.


Short Snappers

Fresh from its 2011 downsizing victory over the HRM council, the Chronicle Herald proposed yet another modification---setting aside half the Council seats for ‘at-large’ representatives, elected not by district but by the whole electorate. One-time Dartmouth Councillor Jerry Pye blew the whistle on this very bad idea: campaigns for at-large seats, he wrote, could be funded only by those in hock to moneyed interests.

Nova Scotians working for minimum wage will receive a $.15 /hour increase on April 1, to $10.15. This modest boost was greeted with howls of outrage, ironically not from those who have to live on minimum wage, but from the business owners and business columnists who never will. The myth that all minimum-wage workers are young servers who also earn tips is a central theme of critics who mostly spend their lives in downtown bars. Not for them the reality that too many of those stuck at annual incomes of $20,000 /year are women who work full-time to support families.

Nova Scotians of a certain age have been dealt a double-whammy. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s December announcement of a reduction in the growth in healthcare funding has been followed by reports that confirm that this will be another setback for the Atlantic Provinces. With higher-than-average costs driven by our greater percentage of seniors, we will be hard-pressed to maintain even the current levels of health care.

Not to worry. Federal pensions are due to be cut as well, Stephen Harper announced at month’s end.

With luck and good management, starving or freezing to death will cut short those inconveniently costly end-of-life years.

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