Alberta’s finance minister says the government will pass legislation if necessary to override collective bargaining agreements with unions and delay contractually mandated wage talks.
The move would affect thousands of workers across the province, including nurses, hospital support staff, conservation officers, social workers, correctional officers — even sheriffs who protect politicians and staff in the legislature.
“The very people who guard the doors of this building and protect the lives of legislators could be legislated out of a fair chance to discuss their wages,” NDP critic David Eggen said Tuesday.
Finance Minister Travis Toews confirmed all options are on the table as he and his staff work to find savings to eradicate Alberta’s annual multibillion-dollar budget deficits.
“We believe that we really need to ensure that we’re being responsible with Albertans’ tax dollars. To do that we need our options open,” said Toews.
The issue involves unionized workers who took pay freezes in the first two years of their contracts but now have the right in the third and final year to have the wage portion reopened and subject to binding arbitration if necessary.
Toews said the government wants to delay those talks and arbitration until after an independent panel reports in August on ways to save money.
“We believe that delaying arbitration is the right path forward, the responsible path forward,” said Toews.
He was asked if the responsible path would be for the government to honour its signed agreements.
He replied: “Again, we’re keeping our options open. We’re committed to working with all of our stakeholders in good faith.”
The move was not announced by the government but was revealed Tuesday by Eggen in a leaked May 16 letter from Toews’ department to public sector unions.
The letter asked for union input on wage reopener talks.
But it stressed that the government will look at legislation if necessary to delay those discussions until after the panel, headed by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, reports by Aug. 15.
Eggen and United Nurses of Alberta spokesman David Harrigan called the move unfair and heavy handed.
“They seem to be keen to follow the old Conservative bully tactics of disrespecting our frontline workers, which only leads to labour unrest and ultimately more costly settlements,” said Eggen.
“Yes, the government has the ability to legislate wage rollbacks. But do they have the moral authority and is that a sign of good governance?”
Harrigan added, ”They think that they’re above the law, and laws that they don’t happen to like they just get to ignore.”
Harrigan and Eggen called the talks with unions a sham, given that the province has already intervened in recent weeks to get wage reopener talks delayed by the arbitrators handling talks with the nurses union and with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.
The results have been mixed. The arbitrator granted the delay in the nurses talks but the one handling the AUPE talks rejected it.
AUPE president Guy Smith could not be immediately reached for comment.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press