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Alberta judge suspends salary restraint act

(Canadian OH&S News) 


(Canadian OH&S News) 

The Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta has granted an injunction to suspend the operation of Bill 46, now the Public Service Salary Restraint Act (PSSRA), following a successful motion by the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE).

In his Feb. 14 decision, Justice D.R.G. Thomas upheld the AUPE’s injunction motion, which provided that if no collective agreement was reached between the province and AUPE by March 31, then a 2011 collective agreement would be put into effect from April 1 to March 31, 2017. The PSSRA, which came into effect in December, implements a zero per cent wage increase until March 2015, but with a lump sum payment of $875 for each eligible employee and a one per cent increase for the years 2015/2016 and 2016/2017.

“I conclude on a balance of probabilities that the applicants have established that the membership of AUPE, specifically in the Crown bargaining unit, will experience irreparable harm if the proposed injunction is not granted,” Justice Thomas wrote, noting that the injunction comes into effect on March 31. “I am particularly struck by the unique and broad operation of the PSSRA. This legislation dictates the terms of an entire workplace employment agreement without any input by the employees through their statutory bargaining agent, AUPE.”

The decision means that AUPE members will be able to bring their collective agreement negotiations with the government to compulsory arbitration, as was their legal right before the PSSRA was passed. “The operation of the PSSRA effectively creates a monologue where Alberta unilaterally dictates the employment terms of the members of AUPE. Salaries are set without negotiation,” Justice Thomas wrote, adding that the PSSRA effectively erases changes negotiated in the previous collective agreement. “The unilateral imposition of an entire collective agreement is novel, particularly where no attempt is made to negotiate and reach agreement on other non-financial aspects of the relationship.”

In siding with the union, Justice Thomas found that the government had not met its obligation to negotiate in good faith, particularly since negotiations between the government and union had been ongoing when Bill 46 was tabled and passed. He also denied the government’s claim that the union’s Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge was “weak” and found that the operation of the act “causes ongoing injury to the relationship between the AUPE and its membership, affects morale” and impeded further collective bargaining between the union and government.

AUPE president Guy Smith said that he was “extremely pleased that the court recognized the merits of our arguments.” He argued that the union always left the door open for negotiations and would continue to do so up to and throughout compulsory arbitration.

Deputy Premier Dave Hancock said in a statement on Feb. 14 that the government would be appealing the decision. “We are disappointed by the decision handed down in the Court of Queen’s Bench. We believe the judgement contained errors in both fact and law.”

Hancock added that “a negotiated settlement that is fair to employees and taxpayers is — and always has been — our preferred option. We’re encouraged that talks have been ongoing all week and both the Alberta Union of Public Employees and the government have agreed to continue negotiations.”

Smith added that the union is looking to have the legislation rescinded. “We are prepared to take our challenge to the Supreme Court of Canada if necessary.”