Not long after taking the reins of government, the UCP government is gearing up for a fight with the public sector unions.
The legislature is on the verge of passing Bill 9, which will abrogate collective bargaining rights for 180,000 public sector workers by delaying arbitration hearings until November at the soonest, even though their contracts state that the hearings must occur between now and October. And some of these negotiations are already underway.
Affected workers include conservation officers, hospital support staff, nurses, prison guards, restaurant inspectors, social workers, therapists, and interestingly, the sheriffs who provide security in the legislature.
The government claims it needs time to assess the province’s finances before it commits to any wage increases for public sector workers, but this prudence doesn’t appear to apply to the owners of large corporations, who were quick to receive a one-per cent tax cut upon the UCP’s election, with a promise of more to come in the following years.
And the individual in charge of looking into the province’s finances — former Saskatchewan NDP finance minister Janice MacKinnon — argued less than two years ago that the government must reduce public sector wages to reduce the deficit.
Although having a former NDPer in charge looks like a goodwill gesture on paper, the government of Roy Romanow she served in was a firm believer in shrinking the public sector and cutting taxes, as was all the rage when they were in power in the ‘90s.
The unions affected by this move are, predictably, not pleased.
Alberta Union of Provincial Employees president Guy Smith told the Star Edmonton that his union will take legal action.
“I haven’t seen this level of anger in years,” he reportedly said.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said he fears this delay is the first step on the road to eliminating arbitration altogether.
And the government hasn’t done much to disabuse labour leaders of the notion that the UCP harbours a hidden agenda.
In a uniquely petulant display, the premier himself — who ran in part on restoring civility to the legislature — distributed earplugs so his MLAs wouldn’t have to hear the opposition party’s arguments against their legislation.
The party claimed it was a “harmless and light-hearted attempt” at humour “to boost caucus morale,” but it’s doubtful they would have seen the humour if the roles were reversed.
Can you imagine the response from conservatives if the NDP had handed out earplugs while the UCP raised objections to their controversial farm safety legislation, for example? It would rightfully be regarded as a desperate attempt to constrain debate.
However, the NDP are by no means blameless bystanders in the battle over public sector wages.
They were the ones who imposed a two-year wage freeze on the province’s public sector workers in 2017 with the promise that it would be followed by arbitration in the third year. Well, so much for that.
One would expect a party whose base of support is the labour movement to do better for the working class.
Perhaps Kenney’s assault on collective bargaining rights will serve as a wakeup call for the NDP to be unapologetic in embracing its labour roots.
In the meantime, if Kenney wants a fight with the unions this early in his term, he appears to have one on his hands.
This editorial originated in the Medicine Hat News.