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Alberta arbitration panel rejects pay cut for public college staff, orders raise instead

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The Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary. Image: Twitter/Alberta University of the Arts

It's unlikely the United Conservative Party government of Premier Jason Kenney was pleased when it got word Monday an arbitration panel had rejected an employer demand for a pay rollback and awarded support staff at eight smaller Alberta post-secondary institutions a one-per-cent raise for the final year of their contract.

Unfortunately for the government, this is what happens when fact-based analysis and the public interest is relied on instead of ideology and malice as a yardstick to determine what working people in the public sector ought to be paid.

Monday's awards certainly run counter to the Kenney government's claim public employees like the 1,700 Alberta Union of Provincial Employees members impacted must take significant pay cuts because times are hard due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the decline in oil prices, which have had a recessionary effect on the provincial economy.

There are those who would argue this drive against predominantly unionized public-sector employees is also motivated by the UCP leadership's right-wing ideology, its strong anti-union animus, and a desire for revenge for the election of the NDP government in 2015, which was always viewed as somehow illegitimate and the fault of unions by the ideological right in this province. The latter assertion, though, would be hard to prove without the ability to subpoena witnesses.

Regardless, the panel rejected the employers' calls for two-per-cent pay rollbacks for the non-academic staff members at the eight institutions -- the Alberta University for the Arts, Bow Valley College and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, plus Grande Prairie College, Lethbridge College, Medicine Hat College, Olds College and Lac La Biche's Portage College.

The three-member interest arbitration panel considered factors that included the economic state of the province in the final year of the three-year contracts, which all included an agreement to renegotiate wages alone in the last year. The panel also considered typical wages in the sector, the arguments put forward by the Alberta government and its various panels, and internal factors such as the wages of faculty and management staff and the institutions' ability to pay.

Wages had been frozen in the first two years of the agreements, which all followed a similar pattern and were negotiated by AUPE in the same time frame. Contract language allowing wages alone to be renegotiated in the final year of a collective agreement, common in Alberta labour relations, is known as a "wage reopener."

Based on the panel's considerations, Chair David G. Tettensor wrote in the similarly worded awards, "I conclude that it is fair and reasonable and in the best interest of the public to award a one-per-cent increase for the third year term of the Collective Agreement, being July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020."

As is the way of such things, the decision of the panel was split, with the neutral chair chosen by both parties and the union nominee agreeing, and the employer nominee dissenting.

AUPE, naturally, celebrated the award. "These rulings back our argument that enough is enough, that public-service institutions should stop placing the burden of Jason Kenney's budget cuts on the backs of hard-working Albertans," said AUPE vice-president Bobby-Joe Borodey.

Pointing out that the institutions had cash surpluses and can afford to pay high salaries to managers, she observed that "when independent, unbiased experts looked at the UCP austerity approach, they rejected it. The board saw through the government rhetoric and ruled on facts. It considered the economic conditions and government funding for colleges."

The Kenney government is likely to react much as it did when an arbitrator rejected government calls for rollbacks and instead awarded a one-per-cent pay increase to civil servants represented by AUPE in January.

As soon as the next round of negotiations began with AUPE, the government upped the ante. Last week, Finance Minister Travis Toews demanded their next contract include a one-per-cent rollback to take away what the government employees won in January, plus another three-per-cent cut to reflect what the minister called "current economic and fiscal reality," all followed by three years of frozen wages.

Notwithstanding his title, Labour Minister Jason Copping seems to be an insignificant player in this situation.

One imagines the government will try harder this time in both sets of negotiations with AUPE to derail the collective bargaining and arbitration processes to get the pay cuts on which it has staked its reputation for fiscal prudence -- although that description is hard to square with the its multi-billion-dollar tax giveaways and oil industry subsidies, which don't seem to have created very many jobs, not to mention its recently discovered $1.7 billion in accounting errors and faulty projections.

Whether using legislation to impose its way or suffering the effects of a legal strike in the period before an election would hurt or help the government's chances of re-election is a political calculation that the premier would probably prefer not to have to make.

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.

Image: Alberta University of the Arts/Twitter

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