HALIFAX — Arbitrators have awarded a seven per cent wage hike to Nova Scotia civil servants over six years, in a decision the premier says is within the province's means despite his prior, high-profile battles to impose salary restraint.
"We believe it is fair to government ... This is not the spike we've historically seen when we've gone through these kinds of conversations in this province," Stephen McNeil said after Thursday's ruling was released.
The Liberal government has made control of public sector salaries and benefits one of its trademark political positions in recent years.
Earlier this year, it proclaimed Bill 148 to limit wage increases to three per cent over four years. Public sector unions complained the legislation, which remains in place, was illegal and unfair.
However, McNeil said he was pleased to accept the arbitration panel's decision that appears to work around the legislation by tacking on two per cent increases in 2019-20 and 2020-21.
"That's a monumental change over what's been taking place in this province," he said, referring to wage increases between 2009 and 2013 under the NDP government.
The arbitration panel said it awarded the six-year term because it meant the parties wouldn't be back at the bargaining table just months after Thursday's decision.
The president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, the province's largest public sector union, said he's also satisfied by the ruling.
"I'll stop short of saying this is a win, but it is," Jason MacLean said in a telephone interview.
"We were facing wage restraint in bargaining with a law that has been proclaimed, and we worked forward and tabled two extra years ... I look at this as the proper way to move."
MacLean said the deal for about 7,200 workers is likely to be demanded by other public sector unions, including those representing health-care workers.
The union is challenging Bill 148 through the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal.
The union hopes that another key area of contention in Bill 148, the province's elimination of a long-service award as of March 2015, will still be overturned by the courts.
The award enables workers to collect a week of pay for each year worked and receive the money when they finish their jobs.
The union says the arbitrators' determination that workers can start collecting their long-service award as of next March 31 is helpful to some employees.
However, MacLean said the limiting of the long-service award to service accumulated to March 31, 2015 has been a significant loss to the union.
No figures were provided by Labour Minister Mark Furey on what the arbitrators' decision will cost the province.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the decision suggests Bill 148 may face further pressure in years to come.
"It further places in question the whole misguided framework of Bill 148 from the outset. It's under fire from every angle now. ... We'll see it under fire very soon from the courts."
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Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the increase was four per cent over six years.