Alberta Politics
Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews holds a news conference yesterday in a hallway of the Legislature inaccessible to most members of the public (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The strategy behind the UCP’s Public Sector Arbitration Deferral Act explained

Posted on June 14, 2019, 2:19 am
8 mins

Albertans who don’t pay much attention to labour relations may be forgiven for wondering about the harsh reaction yesterday to the Alberta Government’s introduction of legislation to delay arbitration for thousands of public employees.

Many readers not directly hostile to unions nevertheless may have wondered, “What’s the big deal? The government’s just asking for a little time.”

Let me explain.

United Nurses of Alberta President Heather Smith (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Once Bill 9, the Public Sector Arbitration Deferral Act introduced in the Legislature yesterday by Finance Minister Travis Toews, is passed – a certainty in a United-Conservative-Party-majority Legislature – it will postpone the start of any arbitration hearings until after Halloween, and suspend hearings that are already underway until the same scary day.

The legislation will impact 24 collective agreements covering roughly 180,000 public sector employees, some of them directly employed by the government but most by public agencies like Alberta Health Services.

Despite the government’s narrative that this is just a short procedural delay while its recently appointed “blue-ribbon” panel gets a handle on the province’s financial situation, union members have sound reasons to worry about what the government is up to.

This is because it is neither hyperbolic nor tendentious to declare that the government’s motives in introducing a law that breaks important terms and conditions of legal contracts should be transparent to even a casual observer.

First, while the UCP narrative doesn’t state this explicitly, halting arbitration hearings is obviously intended to prevent one thing, and one thing alone. To wit: arbitrators giving public employees like nurses a raise.

The urgency for a government that has already decided to attack public sector salaries is that many Alberta public employees’ unions negotiated “wage reopener” agreements in their current contracts, which have now reached the point these wages-only negotiations are about to start or are already underway.

Alberta Union of Provincial Employees President Guy Smith (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Typically, if the parties to a wage-reopener can’t reach an agreement in collective bargaining, compulsory binding arbitration is triggered.

The problem with that for a government like the UCP is that arbitrators have to make their decisions based on facts like comparable salaries paid to other workers, the cost of living, and the employer’s finances – not on neoliberal ideology and hostility to the public sector and unions.

So by tearing up this inconvenient part of the agreements signed just over two years ago by several unions, the government gives itself time to plot its next moves.

Obviously, on its face, the Act allows the government to breach a key part of collective agreements like those of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, United Nurses of Alberta, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and the Alberta Teachers Association.

When those contracts were negotiated, members agreed to multiple years of frozen wages in return for the ability to negotiate a wage increase in the final year of the contract. So Bill 9 strips the contracts of the provision on which members’ agreement to a wage freeze was based.

Imagine the brouhaha in the private sector and among Conservative parties if an NDP government, say, had told a contractor that a provision in its contract that allowed periodic renegotiation of its fees had been nullified by legislation!

It also seems obvious on its face that arbitrary state meddling in legal contracts like that in Bill 9 violates the constitutional protection of collective bargaining rights enshrined by the Supreme Court of Canada. This is what public sector unions are talking about when they say their members’ constitutional rights are being violated, and it will inevitably be tested in the courts. The results are predictable, although that will take time.

Alberta Teachers Association President Greg Jeffrey (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Meanwhile, the government has bought time to entrench its narrative through the work of the so-called “blue-ribbon” panel into Alberta’s finances headed by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, which will report in late summer after what in such a time frame can only be a cursory look at the books.

The evidence of her own past words suggests Dr. MacKinnon’s conclusions are foreordained – she and her fellow panelists will call for something like she has already advocated, wage rollbacks followed by wage freezes based on a tendentious interpretation of the province’s fiscal state.

Moreover, whatever its members’ inclinations, the panel’s mandate is rigged to prevent it from reaching a fair conclusion – it’s not permitted to consider the revenue side of Alberta’s financial predicament, nor is it allowed to trifle with the UCP’s big corporate tax cuts.

Readers may wonder: Why wouldn’t the government just bull ahead and impose its desired rollbacks and freezes now on the public sector right now?

This is a good question, and the answer is obvious from the time lines of the legislation and the actions of the radical agenda the UCP promised its base during the spring election campaign.

Canada’s provincial Conservative governments have torn a page from the Republican campaign playbook south of the 49th Parallel and are now all participating in a national campaign paid for by their taxpayers to unseat the Liberal federal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

What do you think Premier Jason Kenney’s “war room” and its advertising campaigns in other provinces are all about? Why do you think Mr. Kenney is now spending so much time outside Alberta? Why do you think his bromantic partner, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, is in virtual hiding now that his approval ratings have taken a deep dive?

There’s no way the UCP or other governments in the Canadian Axis of Conservatism will risk passing legislation offensive enough to become part of the federal campaign in the critical battleground of Ontario until the national election is over.

After that, all bets are off.

In the mean time, Bill 9 freezes negotiations so no arbitrator can properly do his or her job and allow collective bargaining to function as the Constitution and the Supreme Court say it should.

This is why public sector union presidents like Heather Smith of UNA, Mike Parker of HSAA, Guy Smith of AUPE and Greg Jeffrey of the ATA were lined up in the Legislature yesterday to condemn Bill 9’s historic interference in free collective bargaining.

11 Comments to: The strategy behind the UCP’s Public Sector Arbitration Deferral Act explained

  1. Jerrymacgp

    June 14th, 2019

    Serious question: does Bill 9 as currently before the Legislature contain any “notwithstanding clause” language?

    • David Climenhaga

      June 14th, 2019

      The elephant-in-the-room question. The answer is yes. The section of the Charter the unions argue Bill 9 violates would be Section 2.d., freedom of association. Section 33.1. states, “Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter.” There you go. DJC

  2. J.E. Molnar

    June 14th, 2019

    With apologies to George Santayana: Those who fail to remember Alberta labour history are doomed to repeat it.

    1995 was the year Alberta Premier Ralph Klein blinked — big time! Triggered by wildcat strikes from courageous lowly-paid Calgary hospital laundry workers (most of whom were immigrant women), Klein bit off more than he had bargained for. The laundry workers were forced to take job action to combat Klein’s reckless privatization agenda that had targeted their jobs. Eventually labour support coalesced in six hospitals and nine nursing homes across the province with over 2,500 healthcare workers joining in solidarity work-to-rule campaigns. The David and Goliath struggle ended with a reprieve on the axing laundry workers’ jobs and Klein added $100 million back into the health care budget, which had been severely cut in previous years.

    By the comments made yesterday from Alberta’s labour leaders, it would appear that the labour union mantra of “No Justice — No Peace” is about to ring throughout the province once again. Jason Kenney promised a back-to-the-future conservative government. Promise made — promise kept. He’d better brace for the political and labour fallout.

    For a historical perspective on that 1995 wildcat strike and the fallout see the link below:

  3. Joe Q Public

    June 14th, 2019

    Hmm appears I was right, I was talking with a few people and came to the conclusion, Kenney “wins” either way. 1. It gets fought through the courts and he wins. 2. It gets fought and the Public Sector workers “win” and the bill/act gets repealed. Either way Kenney gets the delay he wants. The only “hope” is that the Unions can push for a emergent hearing in the courts to get this in right away.

    • Rocky

      June 14th, 2019

      Worth trying, but unlikely to succeed. It would be very difficult for the unions to prove there was the potential for irreparable harm since a court would probably say, “if you win, your members will get their money eventually.” Where’s Mr. Justice Denny Thomas when you need him?

  4. Scotty on Denman

    June 14th, 2019

    Ask British Columbians what happens when signed contracts are torn up: for purely ideological reasons and against legal advice, then-education minister Christy Clark did just that to the contract teachers had signed with the previous NDP government in order the new, BC Liberal regime impose changes to its terms unilaterally. The move initiated a decade of lawsuits, all of which the neo-right government lost at a cost of millions of dollars to the public purse—and eventually millions in fines the regime had to pay (also at public expense) for continuing to appeal what had legally been confirmed and reconfirmed as unconstitutional and indefensible. Worst of all, almost a full K-12 cohort of students was deprived by the BC Liberal cuts and changes while the case was at trial and appeals, with the government knowing its actions were illegal all along.

    Budgetary difficulty in paying for the court-ordered compliance with the original contract was just one of the many problems the neo-right regime bequeathed to the Green-Dipper government that replaced it.

    It was a disastrous policy: the BC Liberals knew all along it was illegal to tear up legal contracts, it gamed the judicial system to the max until the court punished it with fines and ordered it to pay the teachers their legal due while legal costs were charged to citizens. Small wonder many observed that this perfidy was tantamount to willful, ideologically motivated sabotage of legal principle, public-sector collective bargaining, teachers’ pay and working conditions, students’ education, and the public weal. It was, in fact, a massive breach of public trust and a total failure.

    It contributed to the BC Liberals’ electoral defeat and to fiscal challenges the new government inherited. It might take quite a while for the BC Liberals to live it down—maybe, taking into account the many other ideologically motivated perfidies this far neo-right party inflicted on British Columbians, an eternity.

    Christy left politics for several years after tearing up the teachers’ contract, but returned to win the BC Liberal leadership when premier Gordon Campbell was forced to resign in disgrace. One of the cabinet ministers who’d stuck it out while Christy was hosting a talk-radio show was George Abbott. After losing the leadership contest (by a close margin) to the policy-incompetent prancing majorette, Abbott left politics and quit the party because, among other things, Christy petulantly resumed defending the mess she’d created years before. He recently completed a PhD thesis in which he condemns such neo-right excesses as he witnessed in the BC Liberal cabinet.

    The BC Liberals, he confirmed, knew tearing up contracts was wrong. I’m not sure he characterized it as a massive breach of trust, but Alberta’s UCP government should give it a read, anyway.

    • markc

      June 14th, 2019

      Not to mention ripping up the healthcare workers’ contract by Campbell; ironically these acts followed the livid ideolog8ical attacks on the NDP for varying a single contract (Carrier Lumber) because of indigenous rights in the Chilcotin.

  5. MarkB

    June 15th, 2019

    “Imagine the brouhaha in the private sector and among Conservative parties if an NDP government, say, had told a contractor that a provision in its contract that allowed periodic renegotiation of its fees had been nullified by legislation!”

    The power purchase agreements – and this resulted in massive expenses for Albertans by triggering a buyback.

    • anon

      June 16th, 2019

      Markb: That was because the NDP were too stupid (some might say ‘ethical’) to use the supremacy of the Legislature to specify in the legislation that no compensation is owed on the Power Purchase Agreements. There is a lot of cunning in the UCP, but ethical constraints? Not so much in my view. So-called legal constraints? The UCP know very well that while the Courts and the Charter of Rights are great and wondrous things, they are also so remote in time and space as to be meaningless in the here and now of the election cycle.


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