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The Annals of Alberta Labour Relations: Redford Government goes boldly where no Tory's gone before

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Dan MacLennan

Premier Alison Redford, Health Minister Fred Horne, Human Services Minister Dave Hancock and Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk yesterday went boldly where no Alberta Conservative has dared to go before! And good for them.

Specifically, yesterday Redford and the three members of her cabinet went where former premier Ralph Klein, human resources and employment minister Mike Cardinal and infrastructure minister Lyle Oberg hinted they might think about going, then chickened out, back in 2005.

To wit: the 2012 quartet of Progressive Conservative cabinet members finally, justly and quite properly imposed first-contract binding arbitration in a labour dispute that just couldn't seem to be settled in the normal course of collective bargaining.

What's more, they seem to have done it over the wishes of an employer, which as far as I know is absolutely without precedent in the annals of Alberta labour relations!

This being Alberta, naturally, they called it something different. Indeed, it could be plausibly argued they had to call it something different.

So, in the government's news release, which was published at the crack of dawn yesterday, Horne and Hancock were quoted as saying the government had declared "a public emergency" to end the labour dispute between Revera Inc., which operates a private, for-profit nursing home in Edmonton, and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents approximately 80 employees at the facility.

A strike by the AUPE members, mostly women in low-paying heath care support and auxiliary nursing jobs, has dragged on for 70 days, the longest in that union's history. The workers are trying to get a first collective agreement -- which in the few jurisdictions still living in the legislative stone age, like Alberta, is the hardest job in labour relations.

Without a doubt, negotiating first collective agreements with employers who resent the union and don’t think they should have to live with one, even though it's the law if their employees vote for it, is a leading cause of unnecessary and harmful strikes.

Most jurisdictions recognize just how difficult getting a first contract can be, and so put in place a law that says that binding arbitration may be ordered if the parties simply cannot reach an agreement any other way.

Alberta labour leaders have been pleading with successive governments for a first-contract binding arbitration law for generations. They've always been ignored.

Back in 2005, Dan "Buff" MacLennan was the president of AUPE and had a good working relationship with premier Klein. He came pretty close to persuading the premier and his cabinet ministers to impose some first-agreement sanity on Alberta labour relations -- and tried to lead them to the water with a little gentle persuasion in the form of a news release, written by Yours Truly.

"Their instinct is the right one," MacLennan said in his press release. "The time is right for such legislation to find its way onto the government’s agenda."

Alas, you can lead a horse … to water, but you can't make it drink. Fair labour relations practice would have to wait for another day.

That day was yesterday – leastways, an important precedent was set yesterday. At any rate, the government’s declaration of the public emergency sends the strikers back to work and gives the union and the employer 21 days to try to reach a solution through collective bargaining. But if they can’t, an agreement will be imposed by binding arbitration.

That means an arbitrator appointed by the government will look at the employer's arguments and those of the union members, consider what other people are paid for doing the same work, examine the circumstances of the company, and impose a settlement that is binding on both parties.

In this case, the government may have referred the dispute to a "Public Emergency Tribunal," or a PET, "with the PET authorized to hear the dispute and impose a binding award on the two parties involved." The union quickly agreed to comply with the order.

But call it what you will, it is what it is. And what it is is a clear case of first-contract compulsory arbitration.

Why the government chose this moment to impose an agreement is not perfectly clear.

"While there has been a contingency plan in place to ensure the health and safety of residents, it is no longer working. The situation inside the Revera facility has deteriorated," Horne said in the government news release. Regular audits by Alberta Health Services and the Health Ministry "found evidence of conditions that pose an unacceptable level of risk to residents," he said.

Undoubtedly, this is true. But there is also little doubt there were other factors at play.

The government generally and Horne in particular have been under pressure from other health care related issues in the news right now -- the scandalous misuse of expense accounts by at least one executive of a former health region and the mishandled plans to close a dementia care centre in the village of Carmangay, which with a little help from their Wildrose Party MLA and a couple of unions has fought a surprisingly effective campaign to keep the facility open.

Tragically, on Monday an elderly resident of the strikebound Revera facility in Edmonton died after replacement employees are reported to have ignored her request for an ambulance to take her to hospital. The current AUPE president, Guy Smith, generated more news coverage calling for an investigation of the death.

Lukaszuk told the CBC the resident's death was not the reason for the government's decision to impose the PET, but surely the impact of these other circumstances, and the weight of the woman's death in particular, influenced the government’s thinking -- as indeed is proper.

Whatever the reason, the government did the right thing, given the particular circumstances in this case.

Now they need to put a first-contract arbitration mechanism in the Alberta Labour Code, the relevant piece of legislation, and finally impose a little sanity and maturity on labour relations in this province.

I'm not sure if I'm quite ready start thinking of the Redford Conservatives as truly Progressive just yet, but yesterday's imposition of first-agreement binding arbitration in the Revera strike was a step in the right direction.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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