After losing two rounds in the battle to contract out highway maintenance, the Nova Scotia government is on the attack again. Instead of adopting the all-out approach that failed in 2000, the department of transportation is chipping away at public maintenance, contracting out the work as public sector staff retire or leave.
The move ignores the solid evidence that defeated contracting out plans the last two times. In 1996, a team of experts determined that the province could achieve more bang for its buck if highway maintenance was kept public. In 2000, the provinces highway workers, members of CUPE 1867, were again able to prove that public sector workers do a better job and save taxpayers money. The workers beat back a plan to privatize most if not all of the provinces highway maintenance.
This time, the province is taking a more calculated approach, contracting out work piece by piece. CUPE 1867 members now find themselves working alongside and more often than not cleaning up after contractors. The members have documented many maintenance problems, and have highlighted training issues and health and safety violations on the job. Their work covers everything from filling potholes to snow removal.
Were cleaning up after the contractors. We re-do their routes after weve done ours, says highway worker Gareth Drinnan, president of CUPE 1867. Its not working out at all. Its not up to the standards that we have to work to. If it were our employees doing this, wed be removed from the equipment. The private sector has no screening or tests before taking the job.
Drinnan says rural communities are being hit particularly hard, and are speaking out. Many municipalities believe the provincial network of highways shouldnt be contracted out especially not in such a patchy way.
Communities are also concerned about the ripple effects of contracting out good jobs. At a recent Richmond Council meeting Warden Richie Cotton said, we want to make sure that those members who work in Richmond County and live in Richmond County actually keep their jobs.
Cotton worried that a contractor wouldnt give Richmond roads the attention they deserve. You get involved with a contractor that might have seven or eight contracts. What priority is he going to give about opening up some of the back roads in Richmond County? Wed have some concerns about that. The council passed a
motion opposing contracting out. Other municipalities have passed similar motions supporting the highway workers and the public upkeep they provide.
The municipality of Chester reports that since road maintenance has been contracted out, there have been more calls of concern and dissatisfied people.
The province is also driving a push to download snow clearing onto unicipalities a move Drinnan predicts will pave the way for more privatization as cities and towns struggle to provide yet another offloaded service.
The highway workers will continue to draw on evidence from other provinces to make their case. Ontarios provincial auditor found that three out of four highway maintenance services privatized under the Harris regime cost more and werent as safe as public upkeep.
An independent study of BCs privatized highway maintenance found increased costs of $15 million more per year costs an auditor estimated could total more than $100 million.
Saskatchewans privatization experiment in the 80s saw equipment auctioned off at bargain-basement prices amid charges of patronage. The provinces highways shamefully and dangerously deteriorated after privatization, according to opposition politicians.
Contracting out means Nova Scotians arent going to get the service they deserve. Everything will be geared to businesses making a profit. Employees who work for them will suffer, and the residents who expect high standards will suffer, says Drinnan.