(Canadian OH&S News)
The union representing Alberta government workers is crying foul over the passing of two bills that would impose wage freezes and strict penalties on striking provincial government workers.
On Nov. 27, the government of Alberta announced that it had introduced Bill 45, the Public Sector Services Continuation Act, which proposes measures such as automatic suspension of union dues and the requirement that the union pay $1 million for each “day or partial day of the strike or strike threat.” The same day it introduced Bill 46, the Public Service Salary Restraint Act, which proposes a four-year wage settlement agreement if the government and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) fail to negotiate a new collective agreement by Jan. 31, 2014. The bill implements a zero per cent wage increase for 2013/2014 and 2014/2015, but with a lump sum payment of $875 for each eligible employee in 2014/2015; and a one per cent increase for the years of 2015/2016 and 2016/2017.
Bills 45 and 46 passed their third and final readings on Dec. 4.
The introduction of the two bills follows the collapse of negotiations between the government and AUPE 12 days after the collective agreement ended on March 31, Alberta Human Services said in a statement. Mediation was held, but no resolution could be reached and the union applied for binding arbitration.
Shortly after negotiations collapsed, AUPE members staged a five-day wildcat strike and walked off the job after complaining that the infrastructure at the new maximum security Edmonton Remand Centre allegedly did not meet occupational health and safety standards. Four correctional supervisors were subsequently fired “for their role in leaving the centre virtually unmanned.” (COHSN, July 15, 2013)
“The recent illegal AUPE strike by corrections officers meant more than 850 RCMP officers had to be pulled from communities to ensure our prisons remained secure — costing millions of dollars,” Alberta Human Services Minister Dave Hancock said in the statement. “Illegal strikes put Albertans at risk. This bill ensures stability of vital public sector services that keep our communities healthy and safe,” he said in reference to Bill 45, which applies to more than 100,000 unionized workers who are already prohibited from striking.
AUPE president Guy Smith called the bills “draconian measures” and a fundamental blow to government employees’ basic bargaining rights. He noted that the government had previously agreed to binding arbitration, in which an independent third party would hear both parties’ positions and write a collective agreement based on the facts, and four dates had been set for February 2014. Bill 46 effectively abolishes that process, set out in the Public Service Employee Relations Act.
Rob Anderson, house leader and finance critic with the Wildrose Party, noted that in 1977, then-Premier Peter Lougheed provided public sector employees the right to binding arbitration as an alternative to removing their right to strike. “We believe that this was, and still is, a fair compromise that should be upheld,” Anderson said, adding that there are already laws prohibiting illegal strikes, including an expedited court process to end them, “which is why the timing of Bill 45 is counterproductive, as it unnecessarily creates suspicion and bad faith during the negotiation process.”
For Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, the bills raise concerns that they are not in keeping with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “It’s one thing for governments to obtain a wage freeze through negotiations with unions and workers; it’s another thing to impose these freezes without negotiation,” McGowan said in a news release. “Such legislation is unfair, unnecessarily provocative and almost certainly unconstitutional.”
On Dec. 3, the AUPE said that it had filed a bad faith bargaining complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board and further legal action was being prepared.