Alberta Diary

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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 Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

One single Alberta government bargaining agency is likely to end badly for Redford PCs

| February 24, 2013

Chances are good the Alberta government's announcement it will consolidate all bargaining with all unionized provincial public employees into the hands of a single lead negotiator will end badly for Premier Alison Redford's Progressive Conservative Party.

This is a government that has never understood the meaning of the phrase "unintended consequences" and that has a fatal attraction to the idea of grand unified schemes that are supposed to solve all its problems forever -- and never do.

This is the government, after all, that under premier Ralph Klein had the bright idea of gaining control over hospital boards by consolidating them into huge regional health authorities that would run the public health care system in a way the government could avoid taking any political responsibility for unpopular decisions.

When that didn't work out quite the way it hoped, Klein's brain trust dismissed the health regions' elected boards and consolidated them into even larger and more expensive entities. At the same time, the PCs consolidated the unions in the province's hospitals into huge region-wide bargaining units, which had the effect of giving them more power.

When that didn't work out the way the next premier, Ed Stelmach, liked -- mainly because some of the senior executives of the new and larger health regions swung their weight around too effectively -- the government created a massive province-wide entity called Alberta Health Services and hired a smart-mouthed Australian economist to run it. 

Well, we all know how that worked out. That's right, not as expected.

First of all, of course, the Australian economist turned out to have a politically fatal predilection for saying what he thought while his mouth was full of oatmeal cookies.

But AHS also cost more. Its management was bloated and bad at solving problems. The government tended to get blamed more often and more quickly for its failings. Plus, it increased the strength of the unions it consolidated into single units. 

Examples: Three years ago, Stelmach was crystal clear, about 20,000 Registered Nurses employed by AHS must take zero pay increases in bargaining. The nurses settled for zero per cent, two per cent and four per cent over three years. One year ago this month, hospital support workers alone proved with a half-day wildcat strike at 20 hospitals that they could bring the system to its knees.

The Alberta government may imagine consolidated bargaining can control such outcomes. In fact, it will hand more power to its employees.

Arguably, the PC government has done a little better in education and the government service. In the former field, it managed a single deal with the province's 40,000 teachers that lasted five years and only devolved into the chaos of multi-board negotiations recently. A case can be made if they'd only tried a little harder, they could have done it all again. 

Indeed, just to show that the government isn't paying any attention, Education Minister Jeff Johnson is trying to get all the teachers and school boards back at a single bargaining table before the creation of the new consolidated bargaining shop.

Meanwhile, in roughly the same time frame, the government also maintained labour peace pretty successfully with the union for Alberta's 21,000 direct government workers through several rounds of negotiations -- suggesting that the negotiation system run by the Public Service Commission wasn't broke, and therefore wasn't in need of fixin'.

The PCs haven't done nearly as well with the province’s 10,000 or so physicians, who only sort-of-bargain collectively, but who seem to have a knack for getting up this government's nose and making it do stupid things.

So now the Consolidation Gang is going to fix the bargaining problems with health care workers of all varieties by creating a massive centralized bargaining authority -- and bringing the teachers and the government workers, not to mention the employees of government boards and agencies, into the mix as well.

And they think this is going to help?

Well, we'll see, I guess. In theory, one could argue, the idea as described by Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk has some merit. But right from the get-go it's hard to imagine it won't have the effect of making it very difficult for the government to point the finger at someone else if its negotiations with any group of public workers go off the rails for any reason. 

So I would say Unintended Consequence No. 1 for the government is likely to be serious and swift political consequences for the bumps and potholes that are fairly typical on the road to any collective agreement.

Unintended Consequence No. 2, it is said here, will be that rather than co-ordinating public sector bargaining, the new agency will probably discombobulate it. 

Fighting over control of the bargaining agenda between the government's super-bargaining agency and the front-line human resources staff in health care, education and the government service will grow worse, and more bitter.

It's hard to imagine that public service unions won't be able to make that disunity on the other side work well for their members.

In health care, the government made AHS an arm's-length, independent agency and hired people to run it. Those people will not take kindly to being told what to do, line by line, minute by minute, nickel by nickel. More unintended consequences are likely to follow.

You don't have to be Albert Einstein to understand insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, but apparently it sure helps not to be a PC premier or cabinet minister. And you don't have to be Charles Darwin to figure out what could happen next.

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

 

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