In the media releases announcing its latest labour legislation—Bills 45 and 46—the Alberta government claimed the bills were designed to “protect Albertans from illegal strikes” and to “provide a framework in which government and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees can negotiate a fair agreement that fits within the government’s fiscal restraint policy.” The reality, however, is that the bills have made it impossible for AUPE to negotiate at all and have made an illegal strike more likely than ever.
Let’s begin with the government’s assertion that Bill 45 will protect Albertans from illegal strikes. If that was truly the bill’s goal, then it was entirely unnecessary.
Public sector workers in Alberta lost the right to strike in 1977 when Peter Lougheed was premier. In other words, strikes by most public-sector workers in Alberta were already illegal and the government had a significant array of fines and penalties at its disposal to use as punishment. The fines assessed to AUPE last spring during the wildcat strike by prison guards and the individual repercussions faced by the guards who led the strike are evidence enough of that. The fact that there have only been a handful of illegal strikes since Lougheed’s legislation was enacted is proof that the deterrent was working.
Was Bill 45 introduced out of a desire to further punish all public-sector workers for the prison-guard action? Or is it rather that the government has some drastic future plans for the contracts, pay and employment conditions of the province’s public servants and felt it would be better to preemptively remove their constitutional rights to free speech, assembly and association?
Despite having taken away the public service’s right to strike, Lougheed understood fundamentally that the workers still needed some recourse in cases where negotiations were dead-locked or where the government refused to bargain in good faith. That’s why he provided the public-service unions access to binding arbitration. In cases where no progress was being made—when a union would usually consider a strike—Lougheed provided the unions the ability to request that a third-party arbitrator review the positions of both sides and issue a settlement that would be binding on both parties. This system has served the province well for more than 25 years
Bill 46, however, completely disrupts any balance and fairness in the system. By stating the government will impose an agreement if AUPE does not reach a negotiated agreement with them by January 31, Redford has completely stacked the bargaining deck in the government’s favour. What motivation would the government possibly have to bargain in good faith if they have the certainty that they will be able to impose their terms? Why would the union even bother returning to the bargaining table in a situation where they can’t win? As with Bill 45, this bill takes a system that was working fairly well and in the public interest, and replaces it with one that removes fundamental rights and puts all the power in the government’s hands.
It is clear neither of these bills meet the government’s publicly stated goals of fairness and protection from illegal strikes. Instead, what they do is take away what little bargaining rights the province’s public service had left and completely strip them of any legal recourse for dealing with bad-faith bargaining by the government. But public-sector unions can challenge the bills in court, launch a charter challenge, file labour-board complaints and work to defeat Redford in the next election, and they have already vowed to do all of that.
But all of those processes take time, and the members’ agreements and working conditions are under attack today. Now that Thomas Lukaszuk—the government’s aggressive and unreasonable pit bull on contentious issues—has been named Minister of Labour, things are only bound to get worse. Lukaszuk has made clear his disdain for unions.
With Lukaszuk implementing these bills, it means that labour relations in the public service are about to hit a crisis point. From wage freezes to increased work-loads and funding cuts, to the attack on pension plans, the workers have been painted into a corner with no legal way out.
Unions now have no choice but to find other ways to fight back: work to rule, coordinated call-in sick days and, of course, illegal work stoppages. That’s the irony—in their rush to silence and oppress unions, the Conservatives have virtually ensured that things will get worse. The unions have no choice but to take illegal job action and, when they do, the blame must fall on the government and these bills. Will they be prepared to fine themselves $1 million per day for inciting the public service to take job action? Because ultimately, that is what they have done. V
Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.