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.

Negotiating with Alberta's PC government? Better bring witnesses!

| May 11, 2013
Guy Smith

Advice to anyone who tries to negotiate a deal with Alison Redford, Thomas Lukaszuk or any member or official of their government: take witnesses with you, and make sure you also bring a tape recorder.

You might want to bring a piece of paper, a pen, a Bible and a notary public as well. One-on-one meetings ending in "handshake deals" with these people? I don't think so!

In what surely is one of the most outrageous Alberta news stories of the year to date, the Edmonton Journal reported yesterday evening that "Alberta Union of Provincial Employees president Guy Smith 'misled' union members when he claimed he had negotiated a full amnesty for striking workers, the province alleged in legal documents filed this week."

As is to be expected, AUPE and the government are now slugging it out before the Alberta Labour Relations Board over the wildcat strike by about 2,500 provincial Correctional Peace Officers that began mid-morning on April 27 when a long-simmering dispute over occupational health and safety boiled over at the just-opened Edmonton Remand Centre.

The fight over what punishments the government can mete out to the union, including seeking compensation for the cost of the strike and a six-month dues suspension, can be expected to drag on for months or years.

As is most emphatically not to be expected, the government came right out in a statement of claim to the Alberta Labour Relations Board and called Smith a liar: "He then chose to falsely claim that he had the agreement that he desperately tried to get and never obtained," the statement says.

The strike ended on May 1, when the jail guards went back to work, assured by Smith he had had negotiated an amnesty for them.

The deal looked like a climb-down by Deputy Premier "Stompin' Tom" Lukaszuk, Redford's designated tough guy and court jester, who just hours before had vowed he would never even talk to Smith or any other official of AUPE while the strike continued.

Just the same, as Journal political columnist Graham Thomson reported yesterday evening in an excellent column, Lukaszuk nevertheless met Smith on April 29 in an Edmonton restaurant where they discussed the illegal strike, and presumably how to end it.

When the meeting was over, notwithstanding the things now said in the government's statement of claim, Smith appears to sincerely have believed he had a deal -- a belief he used (at considerable political risk to himself within AUPE, it should be noted) to get the guards back to work.

Pretty quickly, though, various government spokespeople started backing away from the deal that Lukaszuk either made or didn't make with Smith. When they began to do so, AUPE filed an unfair labour practice complaint with the Labour Relations Board.

The union complaint said in part that AUPE members "feel betrayed by the government and AUPE and take the position that they were tricked into returning to work."

It is the government’s response to that complaint in which Smith is accused of intentionally misleading his members.

The government's and AUPE’s filings to the ALRB were leaked to the Journal by some person or persons unknown for some reason, about which we can only speculate. But the government statement of claim, Thomson accurately reports, "reads like a political speech, using inflammatory language that would be at home on the floor of the legislative assembly."

It is hard to say with any confidence what the principal actors on the government side of this story truly believe, or who came up with this particular strategy, but it is a fair observation that the government's response is not a particularly astute one.

Now, to those of you who are grumbling, "Yeah, but Dave's a union guy, and he used to work for Guy Smith," all that is true. Full disclosure: I know Smith, I used to work for him and I hold him in high regard.

Beyond my personal confidence, however, there's not much sense to the government's story -- which, as they say, has not been proved before the ALRB, let alone in a court of law. The most obvious flaw, of course, is that doing what the government now claims he did would amount to political suicide for Smith within AUPE. For that reason alone, it seems highly unlikely.

Then there is the matter of the documents on which the story is based. They were supposed to be held in confidence by the ALRB. It is interesting to speculate on who did the leaking and for whose benefit.

Whatever the answers to those questions are, it is said here the government's response was foolish because there is no way the union is going to roll over on its unfair labour complaint -- and now they're bound to go before the labour board and try to prove the government did make the commitment that is now in dispute.

If they don't succeed before the labour board -- which, after all, is a tame and employer-friendly body -- expect this fight to move on to the courts.

And so at every step of the way, in a public forum, the honesty and trustworthiness of a government that growing numbers of Albertans mistrust on those very grounds will be disputed in a public forum.

As good an idea as it may have seemed at the time to whoever came up with the idea of leaking the government’s statement of claim and AUPE's documents, it's hard to see how this will do this government much good. Some of the potential consequences include:

Other groups going into negotiations with the government -- and not just unions -- will now to be extremely wary and distrustful, with good reason. Can it be trusted? Likely not.

The credibility of the ALRB has also suffered another blow, even if the documents were not leaked from its offices.

Jail guards represented by AUPE will be so furious another illegal walkout must be considered a possibility.

Chances are also good this is another nail in the coffin of the 11th Hour progressive coalition Redford's government cobbled together to save her government from the Wildrose Wave in the April 2012 election.

Next time, it is said here, many progressive voters will be prepared to take a chance on another Smith, Wildrose leader Danielle, even if they do it by voting for the Liberals or the NDP.

As for Guy Smith, I can only say that if I were him, I'd challenge Lukaszuk or the premier to state the government's allegations in public, instead of in a privileged document. That way he could respond in an appropriate manner to the government's claim he lied to his own members.

It might have been momentarily less satisfying, but surely it would have paid dividends in the long term for the government to argue Smith must have merely been mistaken, and for the documents to be kept confidential until they were presented to the ALRB panel.

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

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