Alberta Politics
Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Plan to roll back public employees’ pay is no surprise, but the way it’s being rolled out seems surprisingly inept

Posted on October 30, 2019, 2:47 am
8 mins

When Alberta’s finance minister announced the Kenney Government’s plan to roll back unionized public employees’ pay by 2 to 5 per cent yesterday, he blamed Alberta’s debt and deficit, not the huge hole he’d just blown in the province’s budget with $4.5-billion in tax cuts for billionaires and big corporations.

Well, whatever. It’s not as if this comes as a big surprise.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

What was going to happen was predetermined weeks ago and was predicted here and elsewhere repeatedly ever since the government appointed a panel led by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, whose op-ed calling for legislated wage rollbacks for public employees was published two years ago this week, to look into the state of the province’s finances.

When public sector unions’ wage arbitrations are allowed to resume after tomorrow’s Halloween celebrations are over, Mr. Toews explained in the government’s press release yesterday, there will be “an updated monetary mandate” that “moves from the previous position of no increase for 2019 to an average 2-per-cent reduction for collective agreements that include a 2019 wage reopener.”

Regardless of the recommendations of the MacKinnon Panel or the law the UCP passed to suspend arbitrations last spring until the panel reported, there’s a technical term for this sort of thing in labour relations, and it’s not trick or treat. It’s called bargaining in bad faith. It’s illegal.

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

What’s more, none of the public sector health care unions affected by this planned rollback are negotiating with the government of Alberta. They’re negotiating with Alberta Health Services and other health care employers. AHS is supposedly an arm’s length agency.

The day before yesterday the Kenney Government introduced omnibus budget legislation that among many other things is intended to allow it to impose many terms and conditions on supposedly freely negotiated collective agreements between public sector unions and government agencies.

As noted in this space at the time, this essentially ended the process of free collective bargaining right there. So there’s a strong argument to be made that part of Bill 21 is unconstitutional, and legal challenges with a significant probability of success are a virtual certainty.

So one of the weird things about Mr. Toews’s announcement yesterday was the fact it was made before Bill 21 had even been passed by the Legislature, let alone enacted into law.

United Nurses of Alberta President Heather Smith (Photo: David Cournoyer/UNA).

While the government will soon have given itself the power to secretly order supposedly independent employer negotiators to take positions in bargaining, it’s less clear this means arbitrators will be willing to break the law and allow those employers to roll back accepted bargaining positions on the government’s say so.

If a courageous arbitrator takes note of the fact Alberta Health Services is sitting on a $1.3-billion surplus or that Alberta’s wages are consistently the highest in the country and says no to the government’s channeled demands, the government could pass legislation to roll public employees wages back anyway.

But since there would have to be done with no meaningful consultation with the affected unions by the government, that too might run afoul of Canada’s courts — which remain, despite the authoritarian tendencies of Alberta’s United Conservative Party Government, independent and impartial.

After that, there’s always the Notwithstanding Clause.

Still, perhaps as Alberta Union of Provincial Employees President Guy Smith suggested to the Edmonton Journal yesterday, the announcement was just a way of bargaining in the media.

Certainly it seems to be being done without the level of attention to the market one would have expected from a normally market-fundamentalist government like the UCP. As United Nurses of Alberta President Heather Smith observed yesterday afternoon, the worldwide market for the services provided by the 30,000 Registered Nurses and Registered Psychiatric Nurses her union represents remains strong, and there is already a shortage of RNs in Alberta. So the 3-per-cent pay cut the government wants to impose on UNA members also makes no sense from that standpoint either.

In addition to nurses, workers affected by the planned rollbacks will include teachers, social workers, health care support staff, paramedics, medical technical professionals, and guards in provincial jails. It’s not hard to predict how those workers will react to yesterday’s announcement.

After a four-year respite, it certainly looks as if the days of perpetual chaos in Alberta’s health care system that characterized the final years of the province’s PC era are about to return with a vengeance.

Taken together, this policy and the way it was announced suggests a level of entitlement and contempt for the rule of law on the part of Premier Jason Kenney’s government that considerably surpasses that of the old Progressive Conservative Party even after it had been in power for nearly 44 years!

The new green, somewhat like the old green

Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon. (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

After campaigning bitterly against the NDP’s carbon tax in last spring’s provincial and the Trudeau version in the Oct. 21 federal vote, the UCP introduced legislation yesterday to keep significant parts of of the NDP’s policy in place.

The real reason appears to be the realization a smidgen of realpolitik is better than handing over millions of dollars to a Liberal government Ottawa. Still, Environment Minister Jason Nixon did his best to pass off the partial climb-down as “standing up for Alberta’s job creators, like oil and gas.”

Critics called the new system unfair and inefficient, punishing companies that have tried to reduce emissions and letting those that haven’t bothered off the hook. Nevertheless, this seems like a significant flip-flop by the UCP on carbon taxes.

Presumably the government kept this policy in a drawer in hopes that federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer would have soon been in a position to dismantle Ottawa’s carbon tax. Had that happened, it’s safe to assume the Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction Implementation Act would never have seen the light of day.

8 Comments to: Plan to roll back public employees’ pay is no surprise, but the way it’s being rolled out seems surprisingly inept

  1. Public Servant

    October 30th, 2019

    It’s not enough for Kenney that 2,000 people lose their jobs. The ones left behind who watch their friends and colleagues suffer must now take on more work AND a pay cut. To top it all off, Kenney and his fellow ideologues take a perverse pleasure in inflicting suffering on others.

    The only hope is for brave independent arbitrators and the courts to slap down Kenney’s vicious behavior.

    None of the people who lose their jobs or take a pay cut have a fully-indexed $120,000 a year pension like Kenney does.

    Kenney campaigned on creating jobs. What he left out was that those jobs were only for lawyers and failed UCP candidates.

  2. Alex C Polkovsky

    October 30th, 2019

    Ineptitude is going to the cente of so many of this ideologically cruel government I fear for the collective blood pressure of Albertans. We will need our nurses.

  3. Just Me

    October 30th, 2019

    This is all pretty rich coming from Jason Kenney, who is recognized as being the fourth wealthiest politician in Canada. Kenney’s personal wealth, not including his fat MP’s pension, is noted at approximately $19 million. Even the CTF noted that Kenney will receive $4.3 million upon eligibility, which he’s grandfathered in at 55 years of age. Kenney was first elected as a federal MP in 1997, so the new rules don’t apply to him. (Like most of the other rules in life.)

  4. JS

    October 30th, 2019

    David, do you think that the wage rollback will also apply to the managers in public sector too.

  5. Jim

    October 30th, 2019

    Never let a good crisis go to waste, and if there isn’t a crisis create one. Wait until Kenney begins going after the pensions, in keeping with the theme of funneling public funds to private hands it is hard to imagine a situation where the billions in public pensions are left alone.
    How does this plunder of Alberta play into Kenney’s much rumored goal of becoming the Prime Minister? Everything seems so short term he isn’t even going to balance the budget.

  6. ernie meyer

    October 30th, 2019

    I smell huge lawsuits. The only winners here are the lawyers.

  7. pogo

    October 30th, 2019

    People are just now being submerged to their death. Is this a feature? Is this a bug? Just ask Jason! I swear, on my grave, there will be no accounting without actual bodies! It’s our way!

  8. Dave

    October 30th, 2019

    I would say Mr. Kenney has been a disappointment, but mostly he has done what I expected. He seems determined to cut his way to prosperity – if that ever really works. I think the real disappointment will be for those who voted for the UCP expecting a return to good times any time soon. They will be waiting .. and waiting and instead things are likely to get worse instead of better because of various UCP decisions. I suspect those voters will eventually turn on him with a vengeance, if he is foolish enough to stick around here, instead of going back to the relative political safety of Ottawa as soon as possible.

    Kenney seems to operate on trying to demonize others, first the NDP and our former Premier, then Prime Minister Trudeau, environmentalists and now our public service employees. Of course none of this helps our economy, but I suppose it just gives him a way to distract Alberta voters for a while from the fact he isn’t really helping the economy.

    I suspect he is also trying provoke a rash response that may be unpopular, but all his overreaching legislation could find his government tied up in the courts instead. I’m not a lawyer, but I am thinking there may be at least a dozen different cases here, related to various pieces of his omnibus budget bills.

    I suspect Mr. Kenney will also go around trying to make the political argument that we are broke, which is not the case, as Mr. Kenney apparently had $4.5 billion to give in corporate tax cuts. A government that was really broke couldn’t have done that. He had his so called blue ribbon panel make selected spending comparisons with other provinces, but forbade them from looking at the revenue side. Had they looked at it, they would have advised, Alberta has the ability to raise more revenue, more so than any other province and our debt is lower than that of other provinces – so again we are not broke.

    Mr. Kenney has made his choices, while trying to give the impression there were no choices, of giving out a large corporate tax cut on the questionable assumption it would result in more jobs and cut government spending to fund that. That is not restraint, it is redistribution. It is unlikely the owners of the large corporations that get this tax windfall will reinvest in our poor economy, but probably just take the money out and back home. Meanwhile the working people whose salaries and wages are cut, will reduce their spending in local businesses, making the economic situation here even worse.


Leave a Reply

  • (not be published)