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Arbitrator's decision awarding 1% pay increase to some AUPE members undermines UCP austerity arguments

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AUPE president Guy Smith. Image: David J. Climenhaga

An independent labour arbitrator yesterday awarded unionized Alberta government employees and health care support workers a modest one per cent pay increase for 2019.

Having gone into wage-reopener negotiations in the final year of their current collective agreements seeking much higher pay increases ranging from 6.5 to 7.85 per cent, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees expressed disappointment at the decisions by arbitrator Phyllis Smith, which also left wages frozen for licensed practical nurses and rejected a market adjustment for correctional peace officers represented by AUPE.

"We are convinced these hard-working members in government services deserve more than one per cent, but we recognize that the decision made by the independent arbitrator is binding," AUPE president Guy Smith said in a statement to his members. About 65,000 of AUPE's approximately 95,000 members are impacted by the three arbitration board rulings published yesterday.

"This modest wage increase is small consolation for AUPE members who have spent many long years being kicked around by politicians of all stripes," Smith continued. "While this increase is welcomed, it does not keep up with the rising costs of living, which we will be fighting for in the next round of negotiations that are already about to start."

Minister of Finance Travis Toews responded to the ruling with a statement blaming the arbitration process on the previous NDP government, asserting "there is no new money for public sector raises over the course of our fiscal plan," and vowing to get more from union members in upcoming negotiations for new public sector collective agreements.

"As a result of these decisions government will need to consider additional steps to balance our budget and get our fiscal house in order," Toews said, dropping hints of layoffs and "finding efficiencies in program service delivery," which sounds like it could mean more privatization of public services.

"As the MacKinnon panel identified," he added (not mentioning it's just been revealed his government essentially wrote the script for former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon's so-called "blue ribbon panel" last year) "public sector compensation makes up more than half of government expenses. … Wage restraint will be of paramount importance as we enter into new collective bargaining negotiations in 2020."

On balance, the decision looks worse for the United Conservative Party government, which has been screaming poverty in the face of its $4.7 billion tax giveaway to major corporations. Smith's decision dismissed the government's demands for pay rollbacks and undermined its claims that Alberta's economic condition and the losses experienced by other workers justify public-sector pay reductions.

"Province-wide data consistently shows a trend of increases in nominal wages for both 2019 and 2020," her decision regarding public service employees noted. "Even the Crown's data using its price of labour calculations confirms that trend."

The increase is "reasonably consistent with what others in the province are being paid," is fair and reasonable, and is in the public interest, she concluded -- no doubt to the great displeasure of the UCP.

In the case of the LPNs, the arbitrator described her zero-per-cent solution as "reasonably consistent with what others in the province are being paid."

Smith seemed to argue it's OK for governments not to tax at appropriate levels to run a modern Canadian province because bargaining unit members have to pay taxes too. "Given that many bargaining unit members in fact have lower than average wages, a sales tax would place a disproportionate burden on members who must devote a greater share of their income to the purchase of goods and services."

With most Alberta provincial public health care and government employees in bargaining for new collective agreements this year, some union members may conclude this means they're being told that if they can't afford supper, they should have dessert!

Given the likelihood of such feelings and the government's probable belligerent response, arbitrator Smith's decisions yesterday and arbitrator David Jones' decision last month that there would be no wage re-opener salary increase in 2019 for registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses represented by United Nurses of Alberta, may have set the stage for a highly disputatious period of labour relations in Alberta for the foreseeable future.

Government seeks expressions of interest in private surgical clinics

In other health-care news yesterday, the government began a search for expressions of interest from private surgical clinics to contract such procedures as hernia repairs, joint operations and gynecological surgeries. A document published on the government's procurement website also listed such possibilities for privatization as circumcisions and "hardware removal."

The government claims such privatization will reduce surgical wait times. Health care experts mostly say the opposite, but in Premier Jason Kenney's Alberta, market fundamentalist ideology can be depended upon to trump observable reality.

Doctors, province seek mediator's help to bridge negotiating gap

Meanwhile, with negotiations for a new collective deal between the province's physicians and the government at an impasse, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Alberta Medical Association president Christine Molnar published a joint statement yesterday saying the parties have agreed to the services of a mediator to help bridge the rift between their positions.

While most physicians are essentially independent businesspeople, they bargain collectively for their fee deal with the government through the AMA.

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

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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