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Alberta government and AUPE sign tentative agreement for three-year public service contract

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AUPE members on strike, in July 1980 in defiance of premier Peter Lougheed’s no-strike legislation (Photo: Alberta Union of Provincial Employees).

The Alberta government and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees both announced yesterday they've signed a tentative agreement on a new collective agreement covering the union's approximately 23,000 members who work directly for the provincial government.

This is the group of public employees the union accurately calls "front-line government service employees," right-wing ideological enemies of public services misleadingly dismiss as "bureaucrats," and many of the rest of know by the old-fashioned-sounding but honourable term "civil servants."

Whatever you call them, political opponents of Alberta's NDP government will be straining like hounds to get their teeth into the details of the contract and attack the government with fatuous claims it's too rich.

That may explain why details of the pact are thin on the ground until after it's been voted on by affected AUPE members. We know it's a three-year deal. And we know it took a long time to negotiate -- almost a year and a half, AUPE acknowledged in its news release. But for the moment we don't know much else.

If I were to speculate, though, I'd predict there is no pay increase in either of the first two years -- colloquially and rather illogically known in labour relations circles as "zero per cent wage increases" -- and a "wage reopener" in the final year. A wage reopener, often negotiated by public sector unions in this province, does exactly what it says: it allows new negotiations on wages to take place while everyone agrees to leave all other aspects of the agreement intact.

I think this is likely because that's exactly the kind of agreements major public health-care unions like the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and the United Nurses of Alberta signed this year. Similarly, last year, the Alberta Teachers Association agreed to a two-year contract with no wage increases, and never mind the wage reopener.

If so, this agreement with AUPE unlikely to give the opposition very much to get its critics' teeth into.

We also can be very sure that the government of Premier Rachel Notley is breathing a modest sigh of relief to have reached an agreement with this group of employees, which often serves as an ideological lightning rod for right-wing opponents of the NDP government in particular and government services in general.

After all, as the result of a court decision that has had the same impact all across Canada, this was the first round of bargaining in Alberta since Peter Lougheed was premier that public employees had their right to bargain collectively, including the right to strike, constitutionally recognized.  

Needless to say, a work stoppage in the public service, while extremely unlikely, would have been a catastrophe for the government, and probably the union too.

AUPE Vice-President Karen Weiers made the union's official announcement, thanking respected mediator Andrew Sims for his assistance in making the deal happen.

Finance Minister Joe Ceci also lauded Sims in the government's similarly uninformative news release "for his efforts in supporting the parties through the negotiation process."

AUPE, which with close to 100,000 members is by far and away the province's largest union and one of the country's, remains in bargaining for its large health-care sectors -- general support service workers and auxiliary nursing employees of Alberta Health Services and other employers.

But with a public service deal in place, perhaps those agreements will follow quickly, wrapping what at times has been a public sector bargaining season fraught with political peril for the NDP.

AUPE also negotiated an essential-services agreement with the government, required by legislation introduced by the NDP in 2016 in response to legal rulings, including one by the Supreme Court of Canada that declared blanket bans on public sector strikes to be unconstitutional.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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