Redford Government resorts to bush-league law breaking as talks with civil servants hit another impasse

Posted on February 28, 2014, 11:10 am
7 mins

Members of the Alberta Government plan their latest strategy to hold the unionized civil service’s approximately 44,000 feet to the fire in negotiations. Actual government officials may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: William Aberhart.

Bargaining with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees at an impasse again, so the government of Premier Alison Redford has had the bright idea of breaking its own labour laws in desperate hopes of pressurizing AUPE members to push their union into agreeing to the latest employer offer.

This isn’t really the way labour relations are supposed to work in a society of laws, but it’s increasingly obvious that if a law isn’t working for the Redford crowd, they just make up a new one. And if they don’t have time to do that, they simply act as if there’s no law at all. Eliminates “red tape,” I guess.

One expects this sort of bush league bargaining in bad faith from the owner of some rural poultry processing plant deeply resentful at the thought a law might require it to actually sit down and talk turkey with its employees.

But for the well-paid grownups employed to manage labour relations with 22,000 unionized civil servants to engage in this kind of game playing is just embarrassing.

But there they were yesterday, sending a letter over the government email system to every single member of AUPE’s civil service bargaining unit trying to wheedle them into getting their elected union bargaining team to say yes to the government’s offer.

On Wednesday, you see, the province ended eight days of negotiations with AUPE’s civil service bargaining committee still sticking to its politically motivated demand for a two-year wage freeze. The offer came the same day Finance Minister Doug Horner reported a $1.4 billion operating surplus forecast. Not surprisingly under those circumstances, the union bargaining committee suggested to the government that it go back and try again. You can read the details of the government’s on AUPE’s website.

Yesterday’s email was signed by Executive Council Deputy Minister Peter Watson – whom recipients will no doubt recall was paid a modest but comfortable $340,333 for his efforts last year.

Headed “Message from Peter Watson, Deputy Minister of Executive Council,” the letter told AUPE members that since “the AUPE rejected government’s offer … I felt that I should provide you with details of the offer the Government of Alberta put on the table.”

Leaning toward the language of advertising – which suggests the influence of the government’s supposedly neutral but in fact partisan Alberta Public Affairs Bureau – Mr. Watson’s email advised bargaining unit members that “the proposed four-year offer included additional compensation for each government employee that consisted of lump-sum cash payments in each of the first three years of the agreement, totalling more than $3,800…” Lump sum payments, of course, do not increase an employee’s pay over time.

Well, I’ll let readers read the offer for themselves, since Mr. Watson provided a handy dandy link. If it disappears from the Internet, of course, I will provide a link to a PDF.

As a result of this sales effort, it’s likely AUPE will once again be before the Alberta Labour Relations Board later this morning filing another bargaining in bad faith complaint. In the event, the union will have the letter of the law on its side, even if the tame tribunal seeks ways to wriggle around it.

The irony is that the government-as-employer wouldn’t have to resort to these kinds of undignified shenanigans if labour relations with civil servants came under the Alberta Labour Relations Code, which allows employers to force union members to vote on a final offer.

But then, it’s sort of implicit in such a setup that if they vote no, they have the right to, you know, do “something” about it. (Sorry to have to be cute about this. It’s only because it’s now all but illegal to speak or write the word str*ke in this context in constitutionally contemptuous Alberta.)

The Redford Government thought it had solved this problem by passing Bill 46, legislation allowing it to impose a deal on AUPE without even pretending to negotiate.

Alas for the government, on Valentine’s Day, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench gave AUPE an injunction preventing application of the apparently unconstitutional law until the union had a chance to actually prove it violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms before an impartial and independent court.

An Alberta government hasn’t encountered this kind of resistance since 1937, when Lieutenant Governor John C. Bowen refused to sign three of Premier William Aberhart’s unconstitutional bills.

Which must be disconcerting for Premier Redford – and possibly extremely expensive for Alberta taxpayers if the union manages to keep on winning its court cases.

But then, this is a government that flies first class wherever it goes, even when it’s just flying in the face of the Charter of Rights.

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3 Comments to: Redford Government resorts to bush-league law breaking as talks with civil servants hit another impasse

  1. February 28th, 2014

    I was looking through the Public Service Employee Relations Act (PSERA) and comparing its unfair labour practices to those of the Labour Relations Code. Both prohibit the employer from interfering in the administration of a trade union.

    Trying to circumvent the union’s bargaining team (which had communicated the employer’s offer to its members) and communicating directly with employees certainly seems like interference with the administration of a trade union.

    Interestingly, the Labour Relations Code seems to permit this kind of conduct. Section 148(2)(c) indicates employers can communicate with workers so long as the employer doesn’t intimidate, coerce, threaten, or bribe (I’m paraphrasing some).

    Oddly, there is no similar provision under PSERA. That to say, the government seems to have forgotten to give itself this loophole in the legislation that governs its relationship with its own employees. Weird and perhaps I’m missing something in PSERA (or in the jurisprudence).

    To your point about bush-league tactics, I’m having a hard time understanding what Hancock et al. thought they would get from yesterday’s email. The public service is POed like I’ve never seen it (over bad faith collective bargaining, the muzzling inherent in Bill 45, and the pension attack Horner has launched—all in the context of a rebounding budget and largesse for Tory “friends and family”) so civil servants are hardly going to be receptive to any GOA messaging.

    Perhaps the intended audience is actually external to government (e.g., trying to generate some support among conservative voters or media types for more austerity)? From what I can see, the Tories are completely on the ropes. Whomever put the Tories on this path should get the axe—whether it was Lukaszuk or his advisors—it has been (and continues to be) a disaster for them.

  2. APS employee

    March 1st, 2014

    Is it possible that the Redford government is trying to reduce front line workers? I cannot see any other reason why they would repeatedly go out of their way to disrespect their own people. Gutting pensions, freezing wages and making up bad laws to do an end run around civil rights might all be part of a scheme to get folks to quit in disgust.
    In my department, the best and brightest are leaving in droves because they are tired of being treated with contempt by their employer.


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