The leaders of Alberta’s public sector unions promised Thursday to fight back after the province introduced a bill to strip away some bargaining rights from an estimated 200,000 workers.
“This is a significant betrayal,” Heather Smith, head of the United Nurses of Alberta, said after the legislation was tabled by Finance Minister Travis Toews and passed first reading.
“In the history of our union, it is the biggest betrayal by government we have ever seen in terms of reaching in and using the power of legislation to alter the terms and conditions of our contract.”
Hundreds of workers rallied inside the legislature rotunda, yelling, cheering, shouting “Shame!” and chanting “So-so-so, solidarity!” as leaders of the unions spoke to reporters.
The union leaders said that while the bill delays contractually mandated wage arbitration talks until Oct. 31, they believe Premier Jason Kenney will go further and eventually legislate cuts to public sector wages.
“If a government can use the power of the state to take away collective bargaining rights to this degree, they’re capable of anything,” said Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.
“And we’re capable of anything to fight back.”
Smith said they will fight the bill in court but didn’t discount also taking job action.
“That is yet to be determined,” he said. “But the level of anger amongst our members is something I haven’t seen in years.
“We’ve been ramping them up for months and months in preparation for a battle such as this. It has come earlier than we thought.”
Greg Jeffery, head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said the bill is particularly upsetting given that teachers have taken pay freezes in six of the last seven years.
“This action by our government is an affront to the teachers of Alberta,” said Jeffery.
Mike Parker, head of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, said its members expect their contract to be honoured.
“If I can’t guarantee the stability of a collective agreement for my membership, then I don’t think I can guarantee labour peace for this province,” said Parker. The union’s membership includes paramedics and other support staff.
In the house, Opposition NDP members heckled and shouted at Toews during question period and when the bill was tabled.
“This is not a removal of rights but simply a postponement of process,” said Toews. “This is not about taking money from teachers and nurses.”
Toews said the government wants to delay the arbitration talks until a panel, headed by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, reports by Aug. 15 on ways the province can save money to get the budget back into balance.
NDP labour critic Christina Gray mocked Toews’ repeated comments this week to bargain with unions in good faith.
“If this is what you consider good faith bargaining, could you please explain what bargaining in bad faith looks like?” said Gray.
The issue involves unionized workers who took pay freezes in the first years of their contracts but now have the right in the final year to have the wage portion reopened and subject to binding arbitration if necessary.
Those contracts specify that discussions and a binding arbitrated decision are to be taking place right now for 70,000 AUPE workers, along with 30,000 nurses. Under the contracts, those same processes are to take place on or before Oct. 31 for 40,000 teachers and another 27,000 members of the Health Sciences Association.
Among other workers affected are social workers, hospital support staff, prison guards, conservation officers, toxicologists, restaurant inspectors, therapists and sheriffs.
Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said when other unionized members are factored in, the number of workers impacted is about 200,000.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press