Thomas Lukaszuk

As is well known, Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk has sent a letter to the boards of all of Alberta post-secondary institutions instructing them on what their bargaining position and final wage offer must be in negotiations with their faculty associations and staff unions.

The position can be summed up in the phrase, now frequently heard on college and university campuses throughout the province, “Zero, zero, zero.”

Oh, wait — and I mean that literally — after three years of nothing you can ask nicely for a 2-per-cent raise. If you’re lucky, and unlike Athabasca University your institution’s administration hasn’t spent its reserves into oblivion, you might get something.

This leads us to a new axiom in the Annals of Labour Relations in Alberta.

Alert readers will recall that it is an opinion expressed frequently on this blog that strikes are not permitted in Alberta unless the union is so weak that the workers cannot possibly win. This practice is already well established.

This is not mere hyperbole. It is literally true, since Alberta’s labour relations legislation, anticipating the Republican “reforms” in Wisconsin by decades, outlaws strikes by essentially all public employees — civil servants, health care workers and post-secondary education employees.

Where such blanket bans aren’t in place and a strike threatens to be effective from the perspective of working people — in the private sector as well as the public — the government directly or through the tame and toothless Alberta Labour Relations Board is willing to step in immediately to postpone or outlaw any strike the union has a chance of winning.

Strikes are only allowed to proceed when there is a strong chance the effort will fail.

Now, though, it would appear that in the matter of public sector negotiations, Lukaszuk is going for the “Full Wisconsin” and banning collective bargaining by public sector unions altogether — only without the American-style bother of actually passing legislation.

Why waste the time passing laws? This is, after all, Alberta!

So the new axiom is simply this: collective bargaining is illegal in Alberta, unless it can be shown in advance to be ineffective.

What else can we make of Lukaszuk’s statement — which is no request at all, but an instruction — in his letter that “limits on compensation and improvements in productivity are necessary everywhere in the public sector, including post-secondary education.”

“In this regard,” he suggests, it would be in the public interest for any and all future collective bargaining to result in agreements with the following parameters:

“Annual percentage wage changes over four years of not more than 0/0/0/2; and…

“Negotiated deals which include methods to achieve productivity gains by remedying any inefficiency in current agreements.”

The former point is code for a government ban on wage increases; the latter for wholesale gutting of collective agreements in the name of “productivity.” Certainly, under this formula, negotiating contract improvements that benefit working people is impossible.

This is not, of course, collective bargaining and Lukaszuk, who is a reasonably bright man, surely knows this.

But the government can confidently proceed with this program in the knowledge it would take more than four years for any challenge to reach the Supreme Court, by which time the government’s inevitable loss would be legally and politically moot.

So, let it be said here, this is an example of bargaining in bad faith on an epic scale.

Indeed, what if universities, colleges, technical institutions and their employees should come up with ways to be more productive? Well, why bother, since Lukaszuk’s diktat means there is no incentive for their productivity improvements to act as an incentive, collectively or individually.

Lukaszuk is also Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s deputy premier. Readers will recall that he was only recently slipped into the Advanced Education portfolio after the government brewed up its Bitumen Bubble misdirection. The previous minister, St. Albert MLA Steve Khan, was unceremoniously skidded, presumably for being too nice and honourable a guy. So Lukaszuk is most certainly aware that government budgets are passed on a one-year cycle — an inconvenient and unchangeable aspect of the Canadian Constitution.

So why is the Redford (un-)Progressive Conservative Government dictating collective bargaining over a four-year cycle? The answer, of course, may be summed up in a single word: politics. The four years will get them through the next election, the government obviously hopes, closing in on a half century of Tory rule.

This is what passes for “labour peace” in Alberta.

It’s said here that Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi — a Mount Royal University professor in a previous life — got it right when he said this government’s attacks on post-secondary education are a disgrace and wrote a letter to the MRU Board urging them to stand up to this government on the question of program and budget cuts.

Indeed, every post-secondary board in this province should do that — though it’s doubtful any of them will have the courage.

Speaking of courage, if this government had any real courage, they’d brush the boards aside and “negotiate” these contracts themselves — it’s what they’re doing anyway. Of course, if they did that, they’d have to take responsibility for whatever happened next.

Count on it, though, when that time comes, this government will be back knocking on the doors of public sector unions, social program supporters and progressive voters, respectfully asking for their sympathy and assistance and trying to scare the bejeepers out of them with tales of what a Wildrose government might do.

Oh, please!

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...