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Plan to roll back Alberta public employees' pay is no surprise but seems unexpectedly inept

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Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews speaks about budget 2019. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

When Alberta's finance minister announced the Kenney government's plan to roll back unionized public employees' pay by 2 to 5 per cent yesterday, he blamed Alberta's debt and deficit, not the huge hole he'd just blown in the province's budget with $4.5 billion in tax cuts for billionaires and big corporations.

Well, whatever. It's not as if this comes as a big surprise.

What was going to happen was predetermined weeks ago and was predicted here and elsewhere repeatedly ever since the government appointed a panel led by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, whose op-ed calling for legislated wage rollbacks for public employees was published two years ago this week, to look into the state of the province's finances.

When public sector unions' wage arbitrations are allowed to resume after tomorrow's Halloween celebrations are over, Toews explained in the government's press release yesterday, there will be "an updated monetary mandate" that "moves from the previous position of no increase for 2019 to an average 2 per cent reduction for collective agreements that include a 2019 wage reopener."

Regardless of the recommendations of the MacKinnon panel or the law the UCP passed to suspend arbitrations last spring until the panel reported, there's a technical term for this sort of thing in labour relations, and it's not trick or treat. It's called bargaining in bad faith. It's illegal.

What's more, none of the public sector health-care unions affected by this planned rollback are negotiating with the government of Alberta. They're negotiating with Alberta Health Services (AHS) and other health-care employers. AHS is supposedly an arm's length agency.

The day before yesterday the Kenney government introduced omnibus budget legislation that among many other things is intended to allow it to impose many terms and conditions on supposedly freely negotiated collective agreements between public sector unions and government agencies.

As noted in this space at the time, this essentially ended the process of free collective bargaining right there. So there's a strong argument to be made that part of Bill 21 is unconstitutional, and legal challenges with a significant probability of success are a virtual certainty.

So one of the weird things about Toews's announcement yesterday was the fact it was made before Bill 21 had even been passed by the legislature, let alone enacted into law.

While the government will soon have given itself the power to secretly order supposedly independent employer negotiators to take positions in bargaining, it's less clear this means arbitrators will be willing to break the law and allow those employers to roll back accepted bargaining positions on the government's say so.

If a courageous arbitrator takes note of the fact Alberta Health Services is sitting on a $1.3-billion surplus or that Alberta's wages are consistently the highest in the country and says no to the government's channelled demands, the government could pass legislation to roll public employees wages back anyway.

But since that would have to be done with no meaningful consultation with the affected unions by the government, that too might run afoul of Canada's courts -- which remain, despite the authoritarian tendencies of Alberta's United Conservative Party government, independent and impartial.

After that, there's always the notwithstanding clause.

Still, perhaps as Alberta Union of Provincial Employees President Guy Smith suggested to the Edmonton Journal yesterday, the announcement was just a way of bargaining in the media.

Certainly it seems to be being done without the level of attention to the market one would have expected from a normally market-fundamentalist government like the UCP. As United Nurses of Alberta president Heather Smith observed yesterday afternoon, the worldwide market for the services provided by the 30,000 registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses her union represents remains strong, and there is already a shortage of RNs in Alberta. So the three per cent pay cut the government wants to impose on UNA members also makes no sense from that standpoint either.

In addition to nurses, workers affected by the planned rollbacks will include teachers, social workers, health-care support staff, paramedics, medical technical professionals, and guards in provincial jails. It's not hard to predict how those workers will react to yesterday's announcement.

After a four-year respite, it certainly looks as if the days of perpetual chaos in Alberta's health-care system that characterized the final years of the province's PC era are about to return with a vengeance.

Taken together, this policy and the way it was announced suggests a level of entitlement and contempt for the rule of law on the part of Premier Jason Kenney's government that considerably surpasses that of the old Progressive Conservative party even after it had been in power for nearly 44 years!

The new green, somewhat like the old green

After campaigning bitterly against the NDP's carbon tax in last spring's provincial and the Trudeau version in the October 21 federal vote, the UCP introduced legislation yesterday to keep significant parts of the NDP's policy in place.

The real reason appears to be the realization a smidgen of realpolitik is better than handing over millions of dollars to a Liberal government in Ottawa. Still, Environment Minister Jason Nixon did his best to pass off the partial climb-down as "standing up for Alberta's job creators, like oil and gas."

Critics called the new system unfair and inefficient, punishing companies that have tried to reduce emissions and letting those that haven't bothered off the hook. Nevertheless, this seems like a significant flip-flop by the UCP on carbon taxes.

Presumably the government kept this policy in a drawer in hopes that federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer would have soon been in a position to dismantle Ottawa's carbon tax. Had that happened, it's safe to assume the Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction Implementation Act would never have seen the light of day.

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 Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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