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Dispatch dispute continues in N.S.

HALIFAX, N.S. - The two sides are still talking, but there is still no clear end in site to a dispatching dispute between Nova Scotia's Liberal government and members of the Truckers Association of No...

HALIFAX, N.S. – The two sides are still talking, but there is still no clear end in site to a dispatching dispute between Nova Scotia’s Liberal government and members of the Truckers Association of Nova Scotia (TANS).

Transportation Minister Ron Russell met with TANS several times last month to come to some kind of compromise regarding the way provincial highway work is divvied up between association members, all independent truckers, and private trucking companies. Currently, the owner/operators enjoy exclusive, quasi-union dispatching rights to 80 per cent of all provincial highway work. The problem from the minister’s perspective is that the work dispatched through the association is contracted at rates up to 50 per cent above tendered municipal and private costs. That arrangement, argues the minister, is costing Nova Scotia taxpayers $4 million a year.

In some counties in the province, this method of dispatching provincial highway work actually pre-dates the formation of TANS 32 years ago. But the arrangement has been utilized province-wide since 1993. According to TANS office manager Dave Roberts, it has worked pretty well for the most part. “It makes sure the independent guys get a kick at the can,” he said.

Roberts said that the message he has received from the meetings with the minister is that the province is happy with the 80/20 policy, but unhappy about the rates. Under the terms of the arrangement, drivers receive a preset asphalt rate, a per-kilometre rate, a cubic metre rate or an hourly rate, depending on the nature of the work. So far, Roberts said, the focus of the talks has been on readjusting the various dollar figures to find ways to save money for the department.

He adds, however, there is little room to move.

“We will look at the rates, but I’m not sure there is anything to negotiate,” he said.

Department of Transportation spokesman Chris Wellner characterizes the ongoing negotiations as “professional” and he said the minister is committed to keep talking until a resolution can be found. He does concede, however, that the ultimate outcome of the negotiations must be reduced costs for the department.

“I think it is fair to say that it is our goal to find the most competitive way to deliver highway maintenance in the province,” Wellner said.

Toward that end, Wellner said the department has appointed a committee that is looking into what he called “alternative service delivery”. In fact, the department already has some pilot projects underway, he said, to test how the private sector can better deliver highway maintenance for taxpayers.

Because the arrangement is simply a policy in place at the department and is not governed by a formal contract, the minister could arbitrarily slash the rates and roll back the 80/20 split. However, by taking that approach, he runs the risk of disrupting highway roadwork at the height of the summer construction season. Plus, TANS has demonstrated in the past that it has the ability to mobilize its membership to stage protests that could disrupt a lot more than road work around the province.

Besides, said Roberts, if the department suddenly cut the rates, it would not be able to find trucks to complete the projects that are scheduled for this year.

“Guys in the rural areas really rely on this work, and if they cut the rates, they would just go to private jobs,” Roberts said. “There could be 700 or 800 trucks suddenly not available to do the road work.”

Wellner said that all the contracts awarded so far this season by the department are structured such that any change in rates – either up or down – that might come out of the current negotiations would immediately apply. He also said that there are still many provincial delivery contracts still to be awarded for this season.

Roberts said more meetings with the minister are being planned and he is currently touring around the province to the various counties to inform TANS members about the content of the past meetings and to gauge their feeling about how the negotiations should go.

Roberts cautions that any changes to the current arrangement would have to be approved by the membership through a vote.

Are blockades and other radical protests a possibility if the minister gets his way?

“Oh probably,” Roberts said. “Nobody likes getting their rates cut.” n

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