Alberta Legislature Protest #BuildingAlberta

Hundreds of Albertans gathered outside of the Legislative Assembly today to protest new labour laws.

Providing a timely distraction for a government facing criticism over the sobering news stories of unreported deaths of children in the foster care system, Premier Alison Redford‘s Progressive Conservatives today suddenly introduced two pieces of legislation that could have a significant impact on labour relations in Alberta.

The first piece of legislation, Bill 46: Public Service Salary Restraint Act, introduced by Finance Minister Doug Horner, would impose a two-year wage-freeze on more than 22,000 government employees represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. AUPE is currently in negotiations with the government for a new collective agreement and this bill would allow the government to bypass a law requiring it to settle the negotiations with AUPE through arbitration, which had been scheduled for February 2014.  Bill 46 would take effect on January 31, 2014 if the two parties cannot reach a settlement before that date.

This bill is reminiscent of threats made by Education Minister Jeff Johnson to the Alberta Teachers’ Association earlier this year. During those negotiations, Mr. Johnson threatened to cut salaries and impose a new contract on Alberta’s teachers if an agreement was not reached by an arbitrary deadline. Once a deal was finally reached between the government and the teachers’ union, Mr. Johnson then legislated the agreement after a number of elected school boards voted to reject the deal on financial grounds.

The introduction of this legislation raises a real question about the state of collective bargaining in Alberta. Can this government, as an employer, be trusted to bargain in good faith with its employees? And what incentive is there for employers bargain fairly with their employees if the government will just impose an agreement?

The second piece of legislation, Bill 45: Public Sector Services Continuation Act, introduced by Human Services Minister Dave Hancock, significantly increases the penalties for illegal strikes by workers who are determined to provide essential services. Mr. Hancock introduced this bill as a response to the wildcat strike by corrections officers that began at the Edmonton Remand Centre earlier this year. The government proposes to introduce harsh fines of up to $1,000,000 per day on a union in the case of an illegal strike or even the threat of a illegal strike.

As David Climenhaga wrote on his blog, the real reason the government is rushing these changes through the legislature is not the possibility of illegal strikes, but the compromise currently enshrined in the current labour relations system:

“While former premier Peter Lougheed deprived public employees of the right to strike in the event of an impasse in bargaining, in return they got access to a compulsory arbitration process. In other words, an arbitrator who looks at the facts, the laws and private-sector comparisons, and who then has the right to impose a settlement on both parties.”

That these new laws threaten to damage the electoral coalition that helped elect Ms. Redford in the 2012 election doesn’t appear to have been considered by the long-governing PCs. Nor did the PC government blink when it proposed changes that will negatively impact public sector pensions or when it imposed deep budget cuts on Alberta’s post-secondary education system, attacking another key community that was part of Ms. Redford’s coalition.

With Ms. Redford turning on her supporters in the public service, Alberta’s public sector employees could find themselves with allies in untraditional places.

“A Wildrose government would never act in this way. Just because your negotiation isn’t going well, you don’t take away people’s arbitration rights that are in the contract that was signed. That’s not how you govern. That’s not good faith,” Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson told the Edmonton Sun.

For reasons that are unclear, Ms. Redford’s government is moving quickly to pass this legislation. At Mr. Hancock’s urging, MLAs have made an unordinary exception to meet for a special sitting on Friday, November 29 in order to ensure that Bill 45 passes through the Legislature in the next 48 hours and becomes law before the weekend.