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

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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).

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.

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 where these wages-only negotiations are about to start or are already underway.

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.

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 MacKinnon's conclusions are foreordained -- she and her fellow panelists will call for something like what 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 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 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 meantime, 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.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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