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Time to change Alberta Labour Minister's dual role, and maybe more

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Thomas Lukaszuk

Can Thomas Lukaszuk properly fulfill his dual roles as Alberta's Minister of Labour and chair of the all-but-secret Public Sector Resource Committee of Premier Alison Redford’s cabinet?

On the face of it, it would seem not -- but then, perhaps as Lukaszuk opined in an ill-tempered exchange on Twitter Saturday, your blogger just doesn't understand the minister's roles and responsibilities.

Still, layperson that I am, I really can't understand how the minister responsible for ensuring unions and employers resolve their differences in a fair and equitable way, as clearly outlined in the Alberta Labour Relations Code, can also chair the committee charged with keeping a lid on the salaries and benefits of people employed by several of those public sector employers.

One role requires him to be a neutral arbiter. The other requires him to play offence for the employer's team, elbows up, something at which Lukaszuk excels.

Lukaszuk's official biography on the Alberta Legislative Assembly’s website makes it clear he holds both jobs. "On December 13, 2013, he was sworn in as Minister of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour," the site states. "In addition to his Ministerial responsibilities, Mr. Lukaszuk also serves as chair of the government's Public Sector Resources Committee."

As for the mandate of this committee -- the Redford Progressive Conservative Party's repeated claims it is serious about transparency notwithstanding -- very little official information is available. No Redford Government sources appear to exist that explain the PSRC's mandate or its membership. The only place information is available is in news stories and columns by journalists, and there are precious few of them.

In March 2013, Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid wrote on the agreement between the province and Alberta's 40,000 public and separate schoolteachers. "There's little question now that the PCs see this deal as the template for other groups," the well-connected columnist wrote. "It explains why the government refuses arbitration of the bitter dispute with doctors, and why the Tories have formed a Public Sector Resources Committee. According to deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, who chairs the group, the idea is to impose uniformity across labour deals."

Alberta Union of Provincial Employees lawyer William Rigutto asked Peter Watson, deputy minister of the Executive Council, about the mandate and composition of the committee at an Alberta Labour Relations Board hearing on January 10. However, Rigutto did not receive a particularly informative answer and will have to try again when AUPE calls Public Service Commissioner Dwight Dibbin when the hearing into the union's claim the government bargained in bad faith resumes.

Nevertheless, the purpose of the Alberta Labour Relations Code, which governs relations between employers and unionized workers, is clear. The preamble to the legislation states that the Code "encourages fair and equitable resolution of matters arising in respect of terms and conditions of employment."

The minister's job, according to the words of the Code, is to "promote fair and equitable labour relations" -- although, naturally, there will always be plenty of room for disagreement between reasonable people about the best way to accomplish such a goal.

Still, surely it is a problem for one person to be charged as minister with promoting fair and equitable labour relations between all unions and employers and also to be the chair of the committee responsible for co-ordinating negotiations with one particular employer's own unionized employees and ensuring the best possible deal for that employer?

If I may be so bold, only a government that has been in power for 42 years would conclude it is appropriate to ask one person -- no matter how reasonable and even-tempered -- to do both jobs.

We need to ask what impact this inappropriate pairing of responsibilities played in creating the situation that led Mr. Justice Denny Thomas of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench to conclude last week "that Alberta did not meet its obligation to bargain in good faith."

"The timeline and events prior to consideration and passage of Bill 46 are interpreted by me to conclude Alberta never intended that the 2013 negotiations with AUPE were to be meaningful," Justice Thomas wrote in his decision Friday to grant the injunction requested by AUPE halting the application of the law until the union's appeal of the law to the courts on constitutional grounds is complete.

Bill 46, which became the Public Service Salary Restraint Act when it passed on Dec. 11, is the law the Redford Government intended to use to impose a contract and wage freeze on the 22,000 direct employees of the province represented by AUPE, and also likely as the template for other public sector bargaining units in health care and education.

The fact the Public Service Salary Restraint Act wiped the slate clean of agreements already made by the government in collective bargaining with AUPE, the judge wrote in his decision, "raises the question of whether those negotiations were ever conducted in good faith, or were merely camouflage for a different agenda."

Given this unhappy state of affairs, perhaps the time has come not only to reconsider the labour minster's role on the PSRC, but to make both the Labour Relations Board and the government's Mediation Services non-partisan offices the Legislature, like the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

For her part, Premier Redford took pains yesterday to give the appearance she was unmoved by Justice Thomas's strongly worded ruling.

In off-the-cuff remarks at an unrelated media event at the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary, the premier insisted her government is determined to continue its legal effort to appeal the judge's injunction and fight AUPE's Charter challenges of the law.

Reading between the lines, however, her remarks suggested more nuance. "The reason we passed the legislation was to ensure we could get to the table and negotiate with the AUPE," she told the Calgary Herald. "…We believe that’s the appropriate way to move forward to get the best deal possible."

The reason negotiations may could bear fruit, though, is because the injunction eliminated the huge tactical advantage the legislation gave the employer and put pressure on the government to end its embarrassment by negotiating a deal satisfactory to AUPE.

We shall see.

 

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

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