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Redford Government set to impose wage freeze on public employees, blowing winning coalition to smithereens

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Dave Hancock

The Redford Government is expected to introduce legislation later today to impose a three-year wage freeze on public employees like the civil servants and health care workers who saved Premier Alison Redford's Progressive Conservative Party from all-but-certain destruction in the April 2012 Alberta election.

Rumours the move was impending have been circulating in Alberta government circles for weeks, but were deemed too silly by sensible observers to warrant serious consideration, even though the government is palpably desperate to find an excuse to post at least one annual budget surplus before the next election in 2016.

But surely, we putatively sensible observers concluded, it wouldn't help the government to balance its budget on the backs of the people who pulled Premier Redford's fat from the fire a year and a half ago!

That seemed especially true since such a move would likely blow the rickety last-minute coalition the premier cobbled together in 2012 to smithereens at a time the rural-based conservatives who deserted her for the Wildrose Party aren't exactly racing back to her colours.

There were other compelling arguments against the strategy of upsetting the collective bargaining apple cart as well:

Redford was endorsed by what's left of the her party's faithful in her mandated leadership review last Saturday, so the need to show she could be just as loony a Tea Partier as any member of the Wildrose crowd seemed to have diminished.

The same public employees are already taking a hit from the plan to effectively dismantle their pensions and replace them with a pension bad enough to win plaudits from the likes of Fraser Institute and the Manning Centre -- and they're none too happy about it.

The government had just reported that wages for all workers grew at a healthy pace of 1.4 per cent in August 2013, year over year, so since public services wages traditionally lag behind the private sector in Alberta, a freeze will hardly be an inducement to public service recruitment and retention in an economy with the second-lowest unemployment rate in Canada.

And, finally, many of the same public employees rumoured to be impacted are still engaged in good-faith negotiations with their employers, so whatever the legal technicalities may be, freezing wages at this point would be an egregious example of bad-faith bargaining.

Indeed, in the past few days, the employer -- in this case, the same government of Alberta -- has just presented Alberta Union of Provincial Employees negotiators with a pay increase proposal in negotiations.

But a government that just weeks ago was proposing to throw municipal politicians in jail for being insufficiently cooperative with regional governments is chock full of surprises. Maybe they were just tired of fending off questions about the shocking number of children who have died while in foster care, many without ever being reported.

At any rate, after Question Period ended yesterday afternoon, "Human Services" Minister Dave Hancock, who is effectively the labour minister, hoisted himself onto his hind legs and announced a public service salary restraint act and public service continuation act would be introduced in the Legislature this afternoon.

Opposition parties were gobsmacked -- which presumably is what passes for a coruscating strategic victory in Redford's political circles.

No one knows yet precisely what the two acts will contain, or exactly which unions will be impacted. Don't bother looking at the list of pending legislation on the Legislature's website -- neither has been posted there yet.

The assumption is the salary restraint section will contain the wage freeze, or at least a very deep chill, and that the continuation section will contain draconian penalties for unions whose members decide to do something about it.

However, since the devil is in the details, and the details presumably won't be on display until the last possible moment this afternoon, we will need to wait a few more hours before making a final pronouncement.

Suffice it to say that, thanks to the Redford Government, it sure sounds as if we are about to take another step toward an Alberta in which collective bargaining is all but illegal.

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

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